As dog and cat owners know, pet care costs can add up quickly. I recently wrote about how my affectionate bichon frise, Mojo, is costing an average of $2,000 annually, half of which goes to veterinary care and special-order food. Which brings me to pet health insurance: Good deal or not?
Gauge your situation
Only an estimated 1 to 4 percent of U.S. pets are covered by health insurance, although the number has been growing as pet care costs have been rising.
Some people say pet insurance can save you a lot, especially if your pet needs an expensive treatment or operation. Others, including Consumer Reports, say you're often better off if you put money into an interest-bearing account for pet care.
To me, the issue boils down to how you answer these questions:
• How much do you typically spend on veterinary care in a year? How would you handle a costly medical problem? Do you want to be insured for that possibility?
• What does the pet policy cover? What does it exclude (such as pre-existing or chronic conditions)? This is a key issue.
• How much is the premium? What is the deductible? How much is the reimbursement? What are the policy limits?
• Does the insurer have a good reputation?
It might be helpful to draw a chart comparing each plan's features and cost.
I obtained quotes online from five insurers. The monthly premiums for Mojo, turning 4 in September, ranged from $9.50 for accident-only coverage to $60 and more for fuller benefits. The insurers were ASPCA Pet Health Insurance, Petplan, Pets Best, PetFirst Healthcare and VPI.
Insurers typically follow this process: You go to the vet of your choice and pay for the visit. You have the vet assist with the claim form, and you send it for reimbursement.
Now, do a little math
How does the premium you'll pay stack up against the benefit you'll receive? This takes a lot of guesswork.
But say, for comparison, I chose the priciest quoted policy: the ASPCA "Sterling" plan, which, unlike many policies, includes coverage for long-term conditions, plus wellness care such as annual vaccines.
With its $77 monthly premium, I would spend $924 for the year. Then, assume Mojo has annual vet care costs of $800, and assume no charges are excluded. At most, I'd get back $560, and it could be less. After I meet the $100 annual deductible, the plan reimburses 80 percent of "reasonable charges.''
Worth it? Well, I would spend more with the insurance than without it — unless Mojo needs costly treatment, in which case I could save a lot under the plan.
Quotes for several plans ranged from about $25 to $60 monthly, totaling $300 to $720 annually. My reimbursements would vary based on different plans' coverages and deductibles. Also, many plans exclude chronic and hereditary conditions, as well as pre-existing conditions. Definitions may vary.
Some plans with lower benefits had lower quotes, down to $9.50 monthly.
Compare other options
Instead of insurance, others advocate:
• Starting a savings account dedicated to pet care costs.
• Getting a CareCredit card, a patient financing program that allows you to pay medical costs for your entire family, including pets, within a certain time period at no interest.
• Using a veterinary practice (such as the national Banfield chain at PetSmart) that offers wellness programs.
My wife and I are going to give pet insurance a shot. For us, a policy through Petplan seems like the best option and would give us more peace of mind.
But we'll be most pleased if Mojo stays healthy and happy and we never take full advantage of the insurance.
John Schlander is executive news editor for the Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.