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Pet insurance was once unheard of. But with the rising costs of pet ownership and veterinary care, the pet insurance industry has boomed, giving parents of fur babies more options than ever to manage costs and soften the blow of emergencies.
Most pet insurance policies only cover cats and dogs. If you have an exotic animal, such as a bird, reptile or small mammal, you'll need to get a different policy.
What Kind of Pets Does Pet Insurance Typically Cover?
Traditional pet insurance only covers the two most common pets: cats and dogs. Its purpose is to reduce the financial brunt of unexpected accidents or illness, which can cost thousands of dollars without coverage. Some plans include optional add-ons to help pay for routine and preventative care.
If you've ever applied for human life insurance, you'll know that your age, gender, lifestyle and health can impact your eligibility and cost. Pet insurance is similar; costs can vary by the pet's location, age, gender, breed and pre-existing health issues—along with the level of coverage desired.
Pet insurance plans start as low as $10 to $20 per month for basic accident coverage. For more comprehensive plans that cover accidents and illness, a 2023 report from North American Pet Health Insurance Association of America (NAPHIA) found the average premiums were:
- For dogs, $640.04 per year or $53.34 per month
- For cats, $387.01 per year or $32.25 per month
Here's how pet insurance works in a nutshell:
- Obtain a quote for insurance by submitting details about your pet and their health.
- Review the insurer's plan choices and terms. If you select one and get approved, you'll submit payment, and you may need to submit paperwork from a recent vet exam.
- Hold tight if your policy has a waiting period during which you can't file claims. This is to protect the insurer, and it will usually only last a few days or weeks.
- After the waiting period, if care is needed, visit the vet of your choice and pay in full. Submit a claim with documentation to your pet insurer, who issues reimbursement.
Many health insurance plans reimburse 80% or 90% of the cost, which adds up for major bills and reduces stress on your pet budget. On average, vet care for vomiting or diarrhea costs $1,550; ingesting a foreign object costs $3,250; and a leg fracture costs $5,400, according to Healthy Paws Pet Insurance. Another insurer, Pets Best, says unexpected pet health bills increase as animals age, and cancer treatment can cost upwards of $7,600.
Note that some vets offer their own wellness plans, which work like memberships with monthly fees to space out the costs of routine care like vaccinations (sometimes at a discount). Unlike insurance, these don't typically offer coverage for disease or injuries, though it may discount those services.
Some pet insurers also now offer their own add-on wellness coverage to complement their policies. Before adding on a wellness plan through your vet or pet insurer, closely review the terms to make sure there's enough coverage to justify the extra costs.
Which Pets Are Likely Excluded From Pet Insurance Coverage?
Pet insurance is usually only available for cats and dogs. Most insurers exclude "exotic" pets, which includes birds, reptiles, amphibians and small mammals like rabbits or guinea pigs.
Nationwide is unique in that, in addition to offering traditional cat and dog insurance, it has a plan for exotic pets starting at $21 per month.
This coverage has limitations—they won't insure species that are venomous, poisonous, endangered, kept on display, are illegal or require a permit or license to own.
PetAssure is one of the few other companies to offer exotic animal coverage, but they only provide "pet plans" to make routine care affordable. Since it's not insurance, it doesn't help with emergencies or unexpected health issues.
Keep in mind that there are limitations for cat and dog insurance, too. Depending on your insurer and policy, you might not qualify for coverage or claims for:
- Chronic or pre-existing conditions, meaning injuries or illnesses from before purchasing insurance
- Breed-specific conditions like hip dysplasia (some plans cover this and some don't, while others cover it with add-on options)
- Behavioral health
- Elective surgeries
- Parasite prevention medication
- Injuries from abuse or neglect, or by making dogs race or fight
Also, make sure your prospective pet insurance plan doesn't restrict certain breeds. Most accept any dog or cat, though premiums are often higher for purebreds since mixed-breed pets are less prone to breed-specific health conditions. Premiums are also typically higher for larger animals, older animals and male pets.
Remember that, even if your pet is elderly or suffers from a pre-existing condition, it doesn't mean you'll be denied coverage. Some plans have no upper age limits or won't outright deny a pet with a health condition. You just might be limited on what health issues you can file claims for reimbursement for. Read the fine print carefully.
How to Save Money on Pet Insurance
Pet insurance can reduce the costs of pet ownership, but good plans aren't cheap. Here are some ways to save on pet insurance:
- Shop around. There's an ever-increasing number of pet insurance options, and coverage, benefits, restrictions and prices vary greatly. It really pays to gather free online quotes from numerous insurers to compare. Consider using an aggregator like Petted.com that provides quotes from multiple insurers.
- Pay attention to coverage. Pet insurance isn't as standardized as human insurance, so what's covered can vary drastically. For example, a plan might cover emergency vet visits, but not blood work, X-rays or medication. Review terms closely to avoid costly surprises.
- Look at caps and limits. Similarly, analyze maximum payouts for insurance and wellness plans (if applicable) since these vary by plan. Is there a per-incident cap on individual claims? Or an annual or lifetime maximum?
- Hunt for discounts. Most pet insurance companies offer multi-pet discounts for enrolling more than one animal. Some larger insurance companies offer bundle discounts if you use them for another insurance product and add a pet policy. It's common to see discounts for paying premiums annually rather than monthly. Certain insurers provide discounts for first responders, military, health care workers and those in animal care.
- Enroll early. If you get coverage for your pet as soon as possible, you leave less time for pre-existing conditions to develop that might not be covered. Plus, younger pets cost less to insure. Some pet insurance plans have upper age limits; many don't, but expect coverage costs to increase annually as your pet ages.
- Consider insurance when adopting. If you don't yet have a pet, know what factors increase the costs of insurance. For example, mixed-breed dogs cost less to insure than purebred, as do younger, smaller and female dogs, which may mean you make a different choice when adopting a pet.
- Adjust policies. When viewing prospective insurance plans, some insurers allow you to customize a policy's deductible and reimbursement rate to lower your premium (and vice versa). Lower ongoing premiums means less coverage, so weigh your short-term financial needs with long-term potential costs.
The Bottom Line
Medical expenses for pets can be astronomical. Unless you have a hefty emergency fund, pet insurance can save you and your pet's tail and help you avoid taking on debt (and potentially wrecking your credit) in the face of a steep unexpected vet bill. Pet insurance isn't cheap, though, so it's important to shop around, select a plan that works for your budget and provides robust enough coverage to meet your needs and justify the expense.