What’s the Difference Between Pet Insurance and a Wellness Plan?

Quick Answer

Pet insurance is designed to help pay for unexpected expenses, such as bills related to an injury or illness. Wellness plans help cover routine care for your pets, such as checkups, screenings and vaccines.

Young women holding up chunky orange cat

Pet insurance and pet wellness plans can make budgeting for pet care more manageable and predictable. But the services they cover differ, and it's important to understand how they work.

Wellness plans typically cover routine care, and, even if they do not save money, they can help you budget for your pet by spreading out costs over the year. Pet insurance, on the other hand, covers unexpected expenses—often the result of accidents or illness. Those could include treatment for diabetes, cancer, an abscessed tooth or setting a broken bone.

How Does Pet Insurance Work?

Pet insurance is health insurance for your pets, and it is designed to cover non-routine health care expenses. Monthly premiums are based on location, breed, age, deductible and more. Pre-existing conditions are typically excluded, as are routine exams and health maintenance, such as preventive treatments and teeth cleaning.

Pet insurance is also available as accident-only, which can be an economical alternative for pets with conditions that would be excluded from standard coverage.

Pet insurance typically covers dogs and cats, and sometimes has an age limit for initial enrollment. If you have an older pet, or a different kind of pet, you can probably still find coverage, but your choices may be more limited.

Reimbursement often comes after you have paid for services. However, some companies work directly with veterinary clinics so you don't have to pay the clinic and get reimbursed.

What Is a Pet Wellness Plan?

A pet wellness plan is a way to pay—or help pay—monthly for the routine care your pet needs. This can include exams, vaccinations, screenings, parasite prevention, spay/neuter surgery and teeth cleaning.

It can help you spread out payments for those expenses rather than getting hit with big bills once or twice a year. It may or may not save money, but it can remove the temptation to skip or delay vet visits because of cash flow.

Some wellness plans can, for an additional cost, be included with pet insurance. There are also standalone wellness plans that could, for example, include a discount for care or products not covered by the wellness plan.

Wellness plans for dogs start at around $10 a month. They can be a great idea for puppies and kittens, whose vaccine schedules require frequent vet visits, and they may also save money later. More important, though, they may ensure that your pet gets recommended checkups and preventive treatments on time. However, be aware that such plans may reduce what you'll pay rather than eliminate it, similar to the way a copay works for your own health insurance plan. Monthly costs may even add up to more than the total cost of preventative care, so it pays to do the math.

Questions to ask in selecting a plan include:

  • Do I have to use a certain provider?
  • Are there different levels of service? For example, some plans may not cover preventive treatments.
  • Are services fully covered, or are there maximum payments for certain services, where I pay the difference?
  • How do I cancel? Do I have to keep paying if my pet dies?
  • Are there discounts on services not covered by the plan?
  • Will I have access to veterinary advice by phone or online?

How to Decide Between Pet Insurance and a Wellness Plan

You don't have to choose between pet insurance and a wellness plan. Some companies bundle them.

As a pet owner, your goal is to keep your pet healthy for as long as possible. That means regular vet visits, preventive care, exercise, affection and good nutrition. You also need to know yourself, and how well you are able to budget. It's not one size fits all.

If you would be tempted to pull money out of your retirement savings to pay for expensive pet treatments, you probably want insurance. But if you have an older pet with chronic conditions or diseases that would be excluded, it might not be worth it.

Wellness plans are for routine, predictable expenses. They may or may not fully cover the costs. (You could, for example, be allotted up to $200 for a dental cleaning, and discover it actually costs $350. Then you are on the hook for $150.) Before you sign up, it's smart to see what the services would cost if you paid them without a wellness plan.

It's important to know whether your pet can use the benefits. If your older pet is frail and anesthesia poses a big risk, you may not need a plan that covers teeth cleanings, for example.

If you might not get checkups for your pet on time without coverage, a wellness plan could be a good idea. But if you are a disciplined saver, you may prefer to just put money aside in a savings account.

Insurance covers things wellness plans don't, like illness or injury. Insurance tends to be cheaper for younger animals. While you can still get insurance for older pets, it's likely to be more expensive and exclude pre-existing conditions. You can reduce the cost by choosing accident-only policies, or higher deductibles and lower reimbursement rates.

Or, you can decide you don't want insurance and pay as you go.

The Bottom Line

Pet insurance is designed to reduce the out-of-pocket costs you pay if your pet gets sick or hurt. Wellness plans are for routine care. They can reduce or eliminate the bills you would otherwise get for office visits, screenings, vaccines and other routine care. Some pet insurance policies include wellness plans, but premiums are higher than for accident and illness insurance.

Wellness plans cover predictable expenses, and it's possible to budget for them. Insurance covers less predictable and sometimes catastrophic expenses. When you buy coverage, it's important to understand which one you are getting, or whether you are buying both.