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How Does Pet Insurance Work and is it Worth It?

Husky sitting on the vet's table.

Some people look into pet insurance to help them offset future vet bills. But while it's there to give you peace of mind, pet insurance works a little differently than home insurance and health insurance for humans.

Podcast Version

So, I’ve delved into home insurance and why you’ll want to have it even if you don’t live in a detached single-family home. And we’ve got a pets section here on Home Stratosphere, where I handle issues pertaining to exotic pets.

Pet insurance is a whole other category and some people ponder getting it to help them offset future vet bills. But it works a little differently than home insurance and health insurance for humans and depending on your and your pets’ situation, may or may not be worth purchasing. The average first-year cost for adopting a pet exceeds $1,000 according to the ASPCA, ranging from $260-1,780 for dogs and $370-1,440 for cats for things like adoption fees, food, supplies, and those first vet appointments. 

Some people wonder about having pet insurance in place beforehand to mitigate these costs. In that article I linked, one vet said it’s common to have at least one $2-4K vet bill for a dog or cat in a given year, and dental cleanings cost just as much, if not more, than ones for humans: about $500 annually. 

Side profile of a crocodile mouth showing its teeth.
Choppers are expensive to maintain.

And of course, there’s nothing in these stats about exotic pets. We don’t exist in dog and cat dominated pet discussions or get information collected about our vet bills because there’s just so few vets who handle care for reptiles, amphibians, and other exotic pets. But I can tell you from life experience that the “first-year” cost for a toad or small lizard is about the same as for a cat, and about 70% of that is going to be allocated to a habitat. Larger lizards and snakes will cost far more, well into $2-3K, due to high adoption and/or animal shipping fees plus all of the different specialized equipment you’ll need. That’s not even counting potential preparations and adjustments you may need to make to your home (something that I don’t think was factored into the dog and cat costs either, ditto for them potentially ruining furniture when they’re getting used to your home.)

(Bonus aside if you have a pet toad: they don’t have teeth! No dental bills!)

Here’s what you need to know about pet insurance and whether you should look into it or not.

Key Facts About Pet Insurance

British cat wearing glasses and reading a book.

Our friends over at the Insurance Information Institute handily compiled all this information that is worth knowing about pet insurance, and whether you think it’ll be worth it.

  • Pet insurance is a hugely-growing subset of the insurance industry. 2.43 million pets were insured in 2018, up 17% from 2017.
  • Dogs make up the overwhelming majority of pets underwritten in these 2.43 million policies, just under 90%.
  • 67% of American households, or about 85 million people, have a pet. 2.43 million pet policies mean just 2.8% of them are insured.
  • Reptile owners make up 4.5% of that 85 million! Nothing about amphibians though. We are a silent minority, dammit. (Unless the actuaries lumped the two together, the fools.)

This information is worth knowing because if pet insurance purchases continue on an upward trend like this, this means that the risk pool can widen to the point that premiums will drop and coverage will increase as a result. Pet insurance premiums vary widely, almost as much as they do for humans: anywhere from $10-100 per month is the norm, the average pet owner pays between $30-50 per month for a decent policy. Older and/or larger pets will incur higher premiums, and because dog and cat years have more magnitude than human years, you can expect premiums to regularly increase annually.

But if the risk pool continues to widen over the next few years, this is good news.

This means more people can afford to insure their pets and make others aware that they can save a lot of money and potential heartbreak down the line. I wouldn’t wish having to opt for baseline treatment or skip it altogether, on my worst enemy. Losing a pet is one of the most heart-crushingly fucking awful things you can go through in this life, and vets are frequently put in a tough position of needing to be paid and having to put a pet down or see it suffer because the owner can’t afford treatment. Ergo, pet insurance can help you mitigate this risk.

However, having a policy alone may not be enough to save you from staggering vet bills and other costs related to maintaining your pet’s health.

Read the Fine Print

Magnifying glass on a document.

Similarly to how humans in America get utterly screwed upon paying out the ass for health insurance policies they basically can’t afford to use, the same thing can happen with pet insurance if you’re not careful.

Not all illnesses and treatments may be covered by your pet insurance policy. Just like greedy-ass, murdering HMOs prior to the implementation of the ACA, pets with pre-existing conditions will not be accepted by even the best carriers if you can afford to pay premiums comparable to human health insurance. However, some carriers such as Embrace, will cover curable pre-existing conditions upon adoption, but not ones considered incurable.

Routine checkups are also paid out of pocket to the vet, they’re not covered like annual physicals often are with human insurance.

Dental diseases, behavioral issues, and grooming (even if it’s meant to prevent problems, like long-haired cats getting infections from frequently getting poop stuck in their fur) are rarely ever covered under pet insurance. No dental? Gee…sounds like how American healthcare treats humans’ teeth like these annoying luxury bones even though you need a decent smile to get a goddamn job in most places.

Hip dysplasia is another issue that is commonly not covered by pet insurance policies. Other diseases and maladies may also be excluded, so be sure to check the fine print before committing to a policy. If you adopted your pet and they already have a condition, they may be the most wonderful animal that ever existed and you’ll have an irrevocable bond that creates lifelong memories– and someone needs to adopt these pets and give them second chances. This is just a gentle warning that you shouldn’t expect your pet insurance carrier to be that generous with covering anything at all.

Accident-Only Policy vs. Accident & Illness Policy

Pug with a pencil between its mouth, wearing a graduation cap, glasses and white shirt and tie and holding a leather bag.

As the name implies, accident-only policies would apply only to things like your dog being hit by a car or your toad is injured by falling debris in an earthquake. (You might want to try going through your home insurance in that event, providing they’re cool with exotics.) Accident and illness policies are more common because it’s the vet bills arising from diseases and short-term illnesses that tend to devastate people unexpectedly.

That last sentence is the real keyword here: pet insurance isn’t quite synonymous with health insurance. While it can help lessen the cost of common problems like if your dog gets into your stash and eats an entire pack of CBD gummies, or has a case of ringworm after poking around in holes they shouldn’t have been, pet insurance is really designed to provide you relief from incredibly expensive treatments for rarer diseases like cancer.

Regardless of what the plan covers though, you can expect those premiums to increase about 20-25% every year, with the higher side for accident and illness policies. And if you want to get a lower deductible and higher reimbursement rate, you’re going to have to pay a higher premium.

Can I Get My Exotic Pet Insured?

Blue poison dart frog on a black rock.

So, the big 12 carriers pertain mostly to dogs and cats. But I got good news, fellow toad parents, danger noodle lovers, and keepers of dinosaur puppies: exotic pet insurance exists! It’s out there, woohoo!

Caveat: just like exotic veterinary care, exotic pet insurance is a lot more difficult to find. But unlike finding an avian expert or herpetologist, you just need to a few clicks to get insurance. At the time of writing, only Nationwide offers pet insurance if your baby is amphibious, scaly, or anything else beyond the realm of dogs and cats. There, I just saved you a whole bunch of phone calls. And yes, their coverage includes amphibians, tortoises and turtles, hedgehogs, rats, and even goats! Some Nationwide policies even have riders for theft and escape of an exotic pet.

Because exotic pets have different medical concerns than dogs and cats, your premium will be around $9-15 per month although I’m estimating that larger pets like dinosaur puppies will cost significantly more to insure than my little amphibious muffin. While reptiles and amphibians have airborne disease risks that humans do not, they’re still not considered as accident-prone as cats and dogs hence the lower premiums. Nationwide is on this toad mommy’s side, indeed.

 

Ultimately, pet insurance is there to give you peace of mind for rarer diseases and accidents that can be financially devastating and so you don’t have to make the awful decision to have your pet put down or given baseline-only treatment if you can’t afford more than that. You’re still going to be on the hook for well-visits, grooming, and other aspects of their care but this is something to think about when you compile your monthly budget and what average vet bills where you live will look like.




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