Pet Health Insurance Calculations

76

It’s at this time of the year that my dog Otto’s health insurance company sends out a renewal letter. And, of course, the older he gets, the more the annual premium goes up.

It only makes sense. He just turned 14 years old. His healthcare costs have increased. In addition to twice-annual well-dog visits, he gets an annual chest x-ray and abdominal ultrasound; he’s had benign growths removed from his liver, and had (a few years ago) a nearly symptom-free case of pneumonia, so we monitor abdomen and organs (for abnormal masses) and his lungs (to make sure they are clear of excess fluid). Plus, I give him a very expensive daily pain-relief medication for his osteoarthritis; it’s metabolized in a way that stresses the liver less than other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, so it supposedly helps with his slightly compromised liver function. (It works, so I’m not messing with it, no matter its cost!)

But, yikes! Today, I had to do some math to see if the increasingly high cost was still worth it. I looked at what I spent this year as a guide:

Total cost of Otto’s vet bills in 2021:           $3,025.00

What I actually paid:

Total cost of Otto’s insurance premiums in 2021:$2,557.37
Deductible:$250.00
10% of costs (insurance reimbursed me for 90%):$302.50
Total cost (so far*) in 2021:  $3,109.87

*This includes the cost of his daily medication and the premiums for the entire year, and presumes we have no more vet visits through the end of the year.

If we make no more visits to the vet this year, I will have paid $84.87 more with insurance than if he had not been insured. But, as everyone knows, just one emergency vet visit, with, say, just one blood test and a prescribed medicine or two, can easily cost $500 or more. If Otto has to go to the vet once more this year for even something quite minor, the insurance will have been worth the cost.

Otto takes a very expensive pain reliever for his arthritis, and it works so well for him that I’m loathe to change it. Insurance helps with the cost.

But the peace of mind of knowing that, no matter the cost, I could likely afford 10% of nearly any bill that he might incur… that’s priceless.

The fact is, knock wood, 2021 was one of our most event-free years in a while. The insurance paid off in a major way in the previous two years, when he needed more medical care.

In 2020, Otto incurred $4083.17 worth of veterinary care (including two major dental procedures). I spent $2,252.27 on his insurance premiums, $250 on the deductible, and paid just $408.32 for all those vet bills, because the insurance reimbursed me for 90%. My total was $2,910.59; insurance saved me more than $1,000.

2019 was the year when he had his liver surgery, with two nights spent at the specialty hospital where he had surgery. His total veterinary expenditures that year came to $7,152.45. I spent $1,745.27 on his insurance premiums, $250 for the deductible, and $715.30 for the vet bills (the insurance reimbursed me for 90%) for a total of $2,711.57. Having him insured saved me more than $4,400 that year.

Funny/not funny: Because of the rising price of his insurance premium each year, in 2021, even though he received less medical care than in either of the two previous years, I’ve spent more than in either of those years.

But if Otto hadn’t had insurance in either of those years, I might still be paying off credit card bills!

The increase in the annual premium has gone up steeply; in 2018, the monthly premium for Otto’s coverage was a full $100 less than I’ll be paying in 2022. The difference is more than what I was paying for my younger dog’s coverage.

Yes, I just used the past tense. Despite what I’ve just said about the clear benefit of having Otto insured, two years ago, I actually stopped paying for Woody’s health insurance. (This added to the cost of Otto’s coverage, as I had been getting a multiple-pet discount of 5% prior to cancelling Woody’s coverage.)

Woody’s in the prime of his life and quite healthy. I hope to be able to insure him again when I’m not paying so much for Otto’s insurance.

I’m taking a calculated risk with this tactic. I first bought health insurance for Woody when he was just a pup, and it was a good darn thing. He was an accident-prone adolescent, and I’ve lost track of exactly how many emergency vet visits he had in his first three years (I can think of five off the top of my head, though I think there must have been more). But after he turned about 3 ½, his medical visits reduced sharply (so far! knock wood!). His annual well-dog visit is pretty minimal, and he hasn’t needed a dental yet.

If I had been paying insurance premiums at the current rates for both dogs over the past three years, it would have tipped the balance; I would have been paying more for the insurance than what the two of them have incurred in costs. But, like I said, it’s been a calculated risk. If Woody had suffered from bloat, a torn ACL, or some other major health problem, then I would have been better off with insurance for both dogs.

When Otto dies, I’ll for sure buy health insurance for Woody again; he’s getting to the age that he’ll need a dental and should start having more tests at his annual vet visits.

As much of a fan if pet health insurance as I am, I can’t imagine affording health insurance if I had three or more pets; even with the multiple-pet discounts, it would add up to a lot. At that point, I’m guessing that most people would be better off saving money each month in an account dedicated for direct health care costs.

What accommodations have you made concerning health insurance for your dogs? Has it been worth it? Not worth it?

76 COMMENTS

  1. Your reasoning on Woody is quite sound; however, no U.S. pet insurer covers pre-existing conditions so if he develops a chronic issue, that will not be covered when it comes time to shop around for pet health insurance. That’s a bit of a risk that should be taken into consideration, and knowing you as I do, I know you have.

    Full disclosure: I am a veterinary medical writer for a pet health insurer. My own personal advice (not speaking for the company) is to get a plan with a very high or no annual/lifetime limit, no wellness coverage (budget for that, instead), as a high a deductible and co-pay as you can stomach. That will keep the policy cost down, but still give you protection from a serious illness or accident.

    NB: Rates are going up because people are opting for higher levels of veterinary care (CT scans, radiology, etc.). It’s not the veterinary prices are going up comparing apples to apples, but rather that there are now oranges that were an option a a couple decades ago.

    • Excellent advice all around. I insured my current boy when he was 5 months old and even though his vet visits at that point were minimal, all it took was a casual vet note about one gunky ear when he was a baby to exclude him from all coverage of allergies for life (he developed full blown environmental allergies at about 1 y/o and it now costs me about $1,200 a year to manage that condition alone). We were also almost excluded from eye issues and skin cancers due to some very poor/vague other notations by a different vet… After great effort and reevaluation I was able to successfully contest the determinations by the insurer, but the whole experience made me realize the enormous pitfalls in insuring a dog with ANY existing medical history. I always recommend people get a thorough medical history review done before committing to a policy, so they are 100% aware of what the insurer will consider pre-existing for their dog (and what that could mean in terms of excluding related problems).

      That said, getting insurance on my current pup was quite literally the best thing I’ve ever done – in his short 4 years I’ve already been reimbursed over 10K for assorted illnesses (some of which are now chronic and will require pricey lifelong monitoring). I’m not looking forward to shelling out for his premiums in a few years, when they’re in the multiple thousands of dollars, but in our case, it’s worth every. single. penny: the piece of mind I have knowing that my medical trainwreck of a dog will always have the care he needs, no matter the cost, is absolutely priceless.

    • This is the way we are proceeding–no wellness care; vet visit isn’t covered, just the treatment; pretty high deductible. Even with that, our oldest dog doesn’t have insurance–he is a healthy 17, but most insurers declined to carry coverage on a dog that old. In fact, we adopted him when he was 4 1/2 and the coverage then was already astronomical. When we get another dog, we’ll start coverage for him.

  2. We had considered getting pet insurance for our critters BUT decided to instead set aside what the premium might cost us and put that in a savings account. For the most part, our furries have been pretty healthy. (Except for the two free kittens that we spent around $10,000 on for vet bills due to feline leukemia and they both passed before their second birthday – as did their other four siblings that my friends had.) Kind of like… once our cars are paid for, we continue to put the same amount into another savings account so that we have a decent down payment for the next vehicles.

    Although if you KNOW your pet will incur big expenses, then the pet insurance makes more sense. For all of my dogs, they’ve been healthy so I’d almost have been throwing away money with pet insurance that wasn’t being used. It’s kind of a toss up – save money for unplanned expenses or spend money on insurance to avoid spending as much should something happen. I could see health insurance being REALLY beneficial if, within the first couple of years of being insured, your dog is diagnosed with something.

    Kind of like people insurance. I know I have health issues, so we go with my health insurance “Buy Up” plan for better coverage. (But my hubs is healthy so he’d probably be just fine on the “Base Plan”.)

  3. My own experience with pet health insurance was that one has to get it for puppies. If you take good care of your dogs and take them into the vet when they have ailments or when you’re worried they might, then by the time they’re adults there’s too much medical history for them and *everything* is a pre-existing condition. I tried getting coverage for both of my dogs (5 and 7) and over a year’s time, there was nothing that didn’t have some sort of indication in their medical history.

  4. I found your pet insurance interesting. I took pet insurance out for peace of mind on my then 6 year old spayed female. For me, it was not a good move financially. They did cover her wellness exam, but but it seemed they were very quick to deem all other bill submissions as preexisting conditions, which I nor the vet deemed to be, and refused to pay. After one year, I decided the arguing with them and my time was just not worth it. Needless to say, I did not renew the policy.

      • Obviously you fail to understand the issue at all ‘Happy’: getting the insurance at puppyhood is exactly what many comments are suggesting needs to be done because if you try and get it after the dog is over a few weeks old there will be vert notes insurance companies will use to preclude every last condition claiming it’s “pre-existing”. Hope you finally understand now.

  5. I stopped buying pet insurance a few years ago when I found out that they were no longer covering breeding expenses.

    I now put what I would have paid for insurance for each dog in a high yield savings account and have a credit card tied to that account. it’s worked so well, that I was able to pay for a very expensive fence repair out of that account, and still have enough left to cover a major bill.

  6. I consider peace of mind a critical item in a world full of chaos.
    When something occurs I am not in the place of deciding do I go see the vet or wait. (In the world of insurance either pet or human this is the major problem).
    My math over the decades with same company and one dog, tells me I come out ahead in the early and late years.
    The company comes out ahead in the middle years. In the end I basically break even. I believe that is how all insurance should work. (Now for humans cost of administration and profit seem higher than for other animals).
    So in the end I feel like I am buying peace of mind and have the ability to provide as needed.
    Their service of a 24 hour vet on call has been great too.

  7. I got pet insurance for my now-nearly-15-year-old girl when she was just a puppy, solely because the vet included a pamphlet in her first wellness visit folder. It was the best decision I ever made. She too was accident prone in her younger years. In middle age, she needed a double TPLO surgery, and now in her later years, she has chronic pancreatitis and diabetes. Because we saved so much money with insurance, I got it for our coonhound mix when we rescued her at age 3. That amazing dog had nearly no medical needs other than her preventatives and wellness visits until she died of hemangiosarcoma at age 13. Over the decade we had her, we paid way more in insurance for her than we ever got back, but I’m sure between the two dogs, the investments balanced each other out. Plus, like you said, the peace of mind of knowing I can afford to provide my dogs with any treatment they need is worth it! Also – I’m curious about the arthritis pain med you give Otto. I too don’t want to strain my girl’s liver and am wondering how long Dasuquin will continue to be enough for her! I’d love to ask my vet if what Otto gets might be an option for her.

    • I’m also curious about the arthritis pain medication that Otto gets. My nearly 10 year old girl is on Galliprant – which is not an NSAID – for her arthritis/hip dysplasia pain. It has helped her tremendously since we started her on it a few months ago. I don’t recall the exact cost, but it’s all that expensive considering she gets it daily.

  8. I absolutely swear by pet insurance and wouldn’t have a pet without it. For years I thought my friend crazy for having it. In 2015 one of my dogs ate an acorn. He had a surgery to remove it and unfortunately the surgeon messed up the surgery and the dog ended up septic. Although we lost Tobin, it wasn’t for lack of trying. The “good” part was money was never even thought of, we did what we had to for my dog. I have another dog who has maxed out his policy for two consecutive years. Much to my surprise our premiums didn’t sky rocket, just normal yearly increases. I tell everyone to get insurance. I insure my cars, house, boat etc. why wouldn’t I take that level of care in the animals I love?

  9. I always tell people to get pet insurance because of my experience. My rescue dog Cassie, who was 6 years old when I adopted her, ended up with cancer two years later. If I had not purchased pet insurance, she would most definitely be gone. She is 12 and has been cancer free for 4 years! The whole cost was close to $10,000 which I would not have been able to afford. Last year I had to cancel her pet insurance because the policy that I had selected (due to limited funds) pays to a maximum of $10,000 so with the deductible and the co-pay, I only had about $2,000 coverage left and the monthly cost was not justifiable. The cost of insurance seems to be more expensive in Canada. If I adopt another dog in the future, I will definitely get pet insurance dependent on what coverage I will be able to afford.

  10. My dog is just 2 years old. I got her insured shortly before she turned 1. Shortly after that she developed a chronic cough that didn’t respond to treatment, and she was referred to an Internal Med specialist for bronchoscopy. Altogether with xrays, meds and bronchoscopy her bills topped $4000. I was reimbursed just under $3000. Just a week ago she sustained a fracture of the distal radius. We’re still waiting for the radiology report, but it’s likely she will need surgery by an Orthopedic surgeon. So again I think her insurance is a godsend. That said when she is older and the premiums skyrocket I’m unsure how I’ll pay for them. The peace of mind is priceless, but the premiums still have to be paid…

  11. Another option. Be you own Pet Insurance. Something like a HSA on the human side. From day one of ownership create a separate account for your pets health. With inflation, let’s suppose the premiums are $250 a month. That’s $3,000 per year. Pay for most of your pets care out of pocket until a catastrophic event or until you have a sizable amount saved ($15,000 in 3 years unless you adjust your monthly deposits by the CPI or other inflation indicator). If you want to make this money work, invest in a Federal and State tax free mutual fund which today gives a 3% return or an effective rate of 6% for some tax brackets. Of course this requires you to budget and be consistent.

    • Even with “discipline” your plan requires that your pet have no serious accident or illness in those first couple of years. If your pet stays relatively healthy, you’re in great shape.

      But unless you have an open credit line you’re able to use before your emergency fun gets built up, you’re SOL if your pet gets really, expensively sick or injured.

      • Point well taken. Statistically about 1/3 of all pets at one time their life have vet bills over $10,000. So it’s a personal tolerance for risk. The other question is how long do you maintain health insurance on your pet. My 14 yo beagle hound has lost most of her teeth, has bad arthritis and spinal stenosis. She still enjoys life but if she got very ill I would show her respect and not push aggressive treatment. Now for the 2 year old good and faithful dog the answer would be different depending on the disease, pain and suffering.

        The comment on accident insurance has different set of economic factors since it is less expensive.

    • I’ve done something similar but different. I have three retirement accounts and a pension. There isn’t much in any of them, about $10,000 in Met Life, $30,000 in my STRS pension 2 and about $30,000 in my Roth IRA. My pension covers all of my needs including my own medical and dental insurance so I’ve just sat on the other two accounts. I don’t have to draw out from the TSAs until I’m 72 and I never have to touch the Roth. So I’ve decided to use a CareCredit card for the dogs for their vet bills that are over $200 to pay off interest free over a year. Anything under I pay out of pocket. But should something catastrophic happen, I know I have $30,000 in the Roth I can draw from immediately and when that is gone I can start drawing from the other two. I know not everyone can do this but I had pet insurance for Ramses, if you can call that pitiful coverage insurance, and to me it never paid off. Not even when he eventually developed cancer at age 14. They didn’t even cover the full cost of cremation.

      I think the costs, deductions, etc of pet insurance varies widely and there is no way to compare one to another.

    • I agree with you. We did carry insurance on our Greyhound, initially it wasn’t too onerous – Greyhounds are one of the breeds that is less expensive to insure. It can vary dramatically by breed. But premiums increased significantly every year and we would have lost a significant amount of money had we continued the policy even though she did have health issues later in her life.

      Everyone’s financial situation is different but my impression is that over the lifetime of a dog few people actually benefit from the coverage. We won’t ever be getting another dog, I can’t go through that heartbreak again, it’s been almost 6 months and I still haven’t recovered. But if we were to adopt another dog I would create an account and fund it with approximately $50,000 to draw from for her care both medical and general. Not everyone can afford to do so but each has to factor in the inevitable expense that you will be responsible for. They don’t go to college but their proper care and support is almost as expensive as it is for a child.

  12. I’ve been insuring my dogs since 2000 when VPI was the only game in town. At one time I had 6 dogs and every one was insured. Best decision over the years, because it meant I never had to make a choice between my resources and their lives. Peace of mind is “priceless.” I can also say that insurance has changed a lot in the last 20 years and competition among companies has helped keep premiums very constant but benefits are much much better. Shop around is my beat advice, and also read the WDJ articles on pet insurance (they help a lot!).
    If I’ve ever questioned my decision to have insurance, all it takes is one more Go Fund Me plea from a desperate family trying to save their dog’s life. I never want that to be me.

    • Ramses had VPI since he was a puppy and it was great. Then they were taken over by Met Life (National) and it was horrible. They just compounded my grief with their denials. They are why I don’t have insurance on my current dogs.

      • VPI was not “taken over” by MetLife. Nationwide Insurance has been an underwriter since almost the beginning of VPI and became the owner many years ago, even though it was still called VPI for quite a long time after the original founder bowed out.

        During a branding change a handful of years ago, the top folks at Nationwide HQ decided to change almost all divisions to the Nationwide name.

        • Ramses had VPI starting in 2003.

          “In 2008, VPI was purchased by Nationwide, which didn’t offer pet insurance policies at the time. VPI operated as a subsidiary of Nationwide for several years under its former name. However, a 2015 company-wide restructuring saw the VPI brand officially retired. Nationwide now advertises pet insurance under its own name, although Veterinary Pet Insurance Company remains the underwriter for most policies.”

          The first five years under the original company were great. The last 9 years under Nationwide became increasingly worse every year. Ramses had no major medical problems until he was 13.

          • I work for Nationwide’s pet insurance division. That’s the “simple” explanation. In fact, Nationwide has had its finger in the pie almost since the founding of VPI, 40 years ago. In 2008, Nationwide owned a significant portion of VPI and decided to up its share and buy the entire company.

            I’m very sorry you haven’t had the best of experiences. Long before I worked for Nationwide (I’m not in sales or claims — I handle communications in the veterinary relations department ) I had VPI and thought it was awful. I now have our Nationwide percent-of-invoice plans on my dogs and just love them. (And no, we don’t get a discount!)

  13. I’ve had pet insurance on 2 of my animals (dog & cat) .and for the dog was a godsend when he got inoperable liver cancer. We took him to Ohio State University Veterinary Hospital for treatment for several years. Unfortunately, we thought the cancer, which was on hold, would take him, but he had a massive stroke and passed a year ago. The cat just has specialized medicine which is reimbursed 90% which has helped too. Maybe IF we get another animal, I still will insure it. I recommend insurance for all who have animals or a special account for them because you never know what will happen

  14. My 13.5 year old golden passed away last week. He was diagnosed with osteosarcoma when he was 10 years old. He required a limb amputation and chemo, total cost of over $12k, had he not been insured from puppyhood we would have had to go into debt to pay for the cost of his care and would still be paying it even now. His policy from that time period wasn’t great but it paid the majority of the costs associated with his cancer. My now 4 year old golden girl was insured as a pup too and while her premiums are high I know that if I were to terminate her insurance and try to add it later it would be prohibitively expensive, if, I could even get her insured. She has not had any major health issues but being a golden, no matter how I try with diet and all she will be prone to cancer. My peace of mind is well worth it. We adopted a golden from the China meat markets a couple of years ago. He already had health issues so insuring him wasn’t even an option since most everything would or could be considered a preexisting condition, as such we self insure him with a savings account. I know that if any major problem arises we will not have enough to cover it but it is a cushion. I would never be without insurance if it was an option.

  15. We have had dogs for many years and our current (2.5 year old) dog is the first one we’ve bought insurance for. We chose Trupanion, in part because the deductible is per condition (vs per year) and we also chose $1000 deductible to keep premiums down. We figured if she ever gets a chronic condition, it would be covered 90% after one deductible payment. (Of course, if there are two conditions in one year, you have to pay two deductibles, so, there is no perfect scenario.) This past year, she injured a tooth and needed a root canal. It pretty much evened out, with the insurance reimbursing us an amount that was about the same as we’d paid in premiums over 2 years. That was fine with me because the root canal was not nearly as expensive as many other situations could be (e.g. when our uninsured late el