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Tails of Seattle: A pets blog

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November 12, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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Part 1: The hunt for pet insurance begins

Louiebw.jpgPhotos by Harriet L. Kaufman

I first bought pet insurance about 15 years ago, after my dog, Isabel, tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) while playing catch-me-if-you-can in a race around the living room. At the time, the knee surgery put me back $1,700 and cost her five weeks for recovery.

The surgeon said dogs that tear one ACL usually tear the other within a year or so. Be prepared, he warned. So I insured her with one of the only companies around at the time. The monthly premium was about $25.

Isabel never tore the other knee and remained fairly healthy until her death at almost 15.

But my other dogs were not so lucky.

Abby1thisone.jpgSix-year-old Abby, right, died after an eight-month roller-coaster ride with an unexpected illness that left me emotionally and financially spent -- I could have bought a new car for the amount I shelled out. Her insurance covered about a fourth of the bills, but its payout exceeded the premiums paid since she was 5 months old.

Fourteen-year-old King Louie, pictured top, died of cancer earlier this year. He had a separate cancer rider on his policy, but it still only covered a small fraction of what was spent on his care, especially his pricey radiation treatments.

The policies' benefits schedule -- the amount the insurer agreed to cover for each ailment or procedure -- didn't come close to covering the actual veterinary charges. In both cases, the reimbursements felt inadequate.

And I'm not alone.

Faced with more sophisticated veterinary procedures and vet bills that easily reach four figures -- some can morph into five figures in dire cases -- owners are looking for financial cushions to help bear the brunt of invoices that soar into the stratosphere.

About a million pets are insured in the United States today, according to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association. About 85 percent are dogs, 15 percent cats.

The group says there are three different types of insurance -- accident only; accident and illness; and accident, illness and wellness. The costs vary among providers and depend on a number of factors, such as the breed and age of the pet, the animal's prior medical history and where you live.

Having seen a dog's health turn on a dime, I know I should insure the two young, healthy dogs I now have for my own mental and financial peace of mind as well as their ultimate well being. I don't want to have to decide on their veterinary care based on what's in my pocketbook; I want their care based on what is medically best for them.

But are there policies now available to cover what I think needs to be covered? Are they knotted with loopholes or prohibitively expensive? Are there land mines hidden in the fine print? How often and under what circumstances are premiums raised? Would I be better off saving the money for future vet bills?

How do I choose among all the companies now on the market? How do I know they are financially sound and will be around when my young dogs reach old age?

My vet recommended consulting It is a vet-produced source for basic information about pet insurance and reviews policies. It also cuts through much of the mind-numbing minutia that can bedevil shoppers.

Also worth a look is's 2012 winners for best pet-insurance providers. It includes a vet review of the pros and cons for the different programs. (It gave the top three spots to Petplan, Embrace and PurinaCare, in that order.)

And the Washington State Office of the Insurance Commission also addresses the issue.

Here are some valuable nuggets from the websites:

-- Pet insurance should be used to help soften a catastrophic financial hit. Make sure you are getting good medical and monetary coverage for the incidents that tend to be unexpected and become financial nightmares.

-- Do not pick insurance solely based on the cost of the premium. It may be the right fit financially, but not medically.

-- Carefully read the terms and conditions of the policy you are planning to buy. That's the large print AND the fine print. The requirements and exclusions are key.

-- Ask each pet-insurance company you are considering for a list of exclusions based on your pet's medical history and breed.

--Veterinary costs vary across the country. Ask your vet what the "worst-case-scenario costs" for a variety of injuries and ailments. If you cannot afford these costs or if paying them would empty your bank account, pet insurance may be appropriate.

I asked several local veterinary clinics for sample, redacted vet bills for three conditions that dog owners commonly face:

-- Gastric dilatation volvulus, also known as bloat, is when a dog's stomach becomes overstretched by excessive gas and twists or contorts. It is a life-threatening condition that requires surgery. Cost: $4,291.90.

-- An ACL tear can be treated by several kinds of orthopedic surgery. The knee surgery I looked at included an implanted plate, and the fee included initial vet visits. Cost: $6,097.74.

-- A cataract is removed from a 10-year-old dog's left eye and replaced with an intraocular lens. The fee did not include the initial exam or diagnostics. Cost: $2,256.25.

On Tuesday, we'll hear from Dr. Jerald Gemar, a retired vet who chairs the Washington State Veterinary Medical Association's finance and insurance committees.

Next Monday, we'll post a series of questions and answers with Adam Karp, a Bellingham lawyer who specializes in animal law, on what we can expect and what we should look for in pet insurance.

Next Tuesday, I'll take you along as I shop for pet insurance and pare the list to determine which policies and companies best meet my needs.

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