Friday, October 11, 2013

Where I stand on the great pet insurance debate

Sinead the Boston terrier puppy in her bed
It's been 6 years since I've had a puppy. Since that time, a lot of things have changed. Now, I can do more than just microchip my dog; I can outfit her with GPS. Instead of buying her dog treats at the store, I can hire a company to select treats for her and mail them right to my house. And if she got hot, instead of using a hose to provide relief, I can wrap her up in a nifty cooling towel that will do the job for me.

Innovation is a wonderful thing.

But the changes I've found most impressive have nothing to do with treats, toys and chips. Instead, they have to do with pet insurance.

When Liam was a puppy, I looked into pet insurance, as I knew pugs were prone to all sorts of skin conditions that can result in hefty vet bills. The first plan I looked into, provided by a company I won't name, excluded coverage for any condition that was considered endemic to the breed. In a way, the conditions Liam's pug counterparts endured worked like a preexisting condition for him, even though he was only 3 months old and had no health problems at all.

Needless to say, my searching stopped right there, and from that point onward, I became an intransigent bad-mouther of the pet insurance business (I even wrote up a pretty nasty article about the topic on this blog). These plans are expensive, and if they didn't include genetic conditions, they seemed worthless, as many of the most expensive problems facing our pets have been found in their genetic brothers and sisters. And, almost any condition could be considered a breed-specific problem, as long as just one pet of the same breed showed symptoms.

Many people felt the same, it seems, and modern plans changed in order to entice more naysayers like me. They did good work. I looked at two this week, and here's what I found.

Healthy Paws pet insurance provides lifetime benefits to dogs, and there are no caps on coverage. Everything from prescription medications to surgeries is covered, and there are no sneaky clauses about genetic conditions or breed-specific problems. As long as the dog didn't have the problem when the coverage began, the owner is covered.

Trupanion pet insurance works in much the same way, with no sneaky clauses and full coverage for all sorts of surgeries, medications and procedures. The company even provides a sample policy online, just to ensure that clients know what they're expected to get well before they buy.

Insuring Sinead under one of these plans would lost me about $30 per month, and I'd have a deductible to meet before the company would pay. That deductible is per condition, in most cases, so there would be times in which I'd have to shell out money for the whole bill, even though I had insurance.

However, if Sinead got cancer, diabetes, Cushing's disease or some other horrific medical problem, or if she was somehow injured or wounded, I'd have coverage. Without it, I might spend thousands in order to make her well. Sometimes, I might be forced to make decisions about her medical care based on the cost of that care, and that seems just awful.

It's worth pausing, though, to consider that small point. Some medical conditions that impact our pets, like cancer, can be ameliorated through medical treatment. Chemotherapy, for example, can give a dog months of happy life, in some cases. Surgery for a broken bone can help to save a limb. But sometimes, the interventions we provide our pets with aren't really best for them. Is orthopedic surgery right, when it results in months of crate rest and possible arthritis down the line? Would a cheaper amputation be better for the health of the animal? Should a dog with cancer get an expensive and painful debulking surgery with months of chemo just to get 3 more months of life? I'm not sure.

I would like to think, though, that insurance could help me to make these decisions without the cost of the therapies clouding my judgement. If I could just take the recommendations of a doctor and weigh what's best for Sinead, without taking my finances into account, maybe I'd make better choices.

At this point, I'm still debating. I've seen other bloggers tackle this question by creating spreadsheets of current expenditures and current insurance costs, and while that seems reasonable, it doesn't take into account sudden catastrophes. Those costs are just unknown, and they must factor into the decision.

Anyone have advice or stories to share to help me decide? I'd love to hear your comments.

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