To insure or not, that is the question
By Elizabeth Putnam
The veterinary bills really started to pile up for Patricia Kemble when cancerous tumors were found in her cat, Autumn.
The pile of bills only grew higher when her English springer, Brandy, died from anemia after enduring nine years of insulin shots for diabetes, among other maladies.
"It's hard to estimate how much I've spent on (veterinary bills), but it's probably around, maybe $12,000," said Kemble, 41, of New Fairfield.
Now, Kemble is considering a different route for her existing brood of six cats and a dog to ensure that bill pile never grows again.
"I'm considering insurance, but it's a little tricky. I'm hoping it can help me, though," she said.
Kemble is far from alone.
Pet insurance is gaining popularity nationwide, spurred by rising veterinary costs, more advertising and pet owners' tendency to treat their pets like family members, according to Packaged Facts, a consumer data-gathering group. Revenue for the U.S. pet insurance business hit $160 million last year, up 25 percent from the year before.
Christopher Brunner, a veterinarian at the Brookfield Animal Hospital, said about one out of every 50 of his customers insure their pets.
"We are seeing a trend moving in that direction. People are realizing that the advances in vet medicine are raising the cost of care," Brunner said.
Brookfield Animal Hospital recommends insurance for pet owners with young pets, like a puppy or kitten.
"Start when they are young," Brunner said.
Stephanie Shain, director of outreach for the Humane Society of the United States, said the organization also has seen an increase in calls from pet owners looking for advice about pet health insurance.
Although the Humane Society doesn't endorse a specific insurance company or plan, Shain said pet owners just need to use common sense when choosing a policy.
Pet health plans vary widely depending on benefits and the animal's species, breed and age. The restrictions are complicated and often similar to limits that apply to human health insurance, such as pre-existing conditions or advanced cancer treatments, Shain said.
"Basically, be sure to read the fine print, know what you are buying," she said.
A basic plan covering general illness can start at $15 a month for a dog and $10 for a cat. If you want your plan to help pay for flea protection or offer a reward if your pet is lost, expect to pay about $70 or more.
Industry leader Veterinary Pet Insurance offers two levels of coverage that varies by location. To insure a 3-year-old Golden Retriever in Connecticut under the company's superior plan would cost about $20 a month. That amount would cover thousands of conditions related to accidents and illnesses.
That's not a bad deal considering vet visits and surgery cost dog owners almost $800 and cat owners $500 last year, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.
According to the Humane Society of the United States, the increase in pet insurance popularity is contributed to several factors. As veterinary medicine advances, pet owners now have options that they didn't before. For example, a dog with cancer can now undergo chemotherapy.
"People are planning ahead more with their pets. Insurance can remove that question of 'Can we afford this?' Pet owners can focus on what is right for the pet, what's the best outcome," Shain said.
The other prime factor is the way pets are treated. "They truly are a part of our families, more so than ever," she said.
Brian Iannessa, a spokesman for Veterinary Pet Insurance, said the company made almost $110 million in 2005, compared to $85 million in 2003.
That increase is all about awareness, he said.
According to an industry survey about the current and future market for veterinarians and veterinary medical services in the United States, 14 percent of pet owners are good prospects for pet insurance.
Considering that 2 to 3 percent of pet owners currently insure their pets, "there is a considerable segment of the market ready to be tapped into," Iannessa said.
Although pet insurance is growing in popularity, the U.S. still lags compared to other countries.
Two percent of North American pet owners had signed up for the insurance in 2005, according to Packaged Facts.
In Great Britain, 25 percent of pet owners have insurance, and in Sweden, nearly 50 percent have it.
For many pet owners, cost isn't even a factor.
According to the American Animal Hospital Association 2002 Pet Owner Survey, about half of pet owners surveyed said they would spend any amount of money to save their pet's life. And consumer spending in general on pets has more than doubled from $17 billion in 1994 to an estimated $38.4 billion in 2006, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.
Kemble said if she does buy a policy, she would not insure all of her pets. Her two oldest cats, ages 13 and 14, are past their prime and need more trips to the vet.
"The two young ones are in good health now, so insurance might help down the road," Kemble said.
Contact Elizabeth Putnam
Never make someone a priority in your life when that someone treats you like an option.