Words: Dr Joanna Woodnutt MRCVS
Whether your dog is 8 weeks or 8 years, pet insurance can be a good way to ensure you have the money available for accidents and diseases. But how do you know which policy is right for you? Dr Joanna Woodnutt MRCVS delves into the world of pet insurance and gives us a few tips on hunting down that perfect policy.
One of the hardest parts about being a vet is when we are accused of being ‘money grabbing’. We have a hard job balancing your dog’s welfare with the cost of medicine, and we understand it can get expensive. That’s why we smile when we find out a pet is insured- not because of a cartoonish dollar sign appearing in our eyes, but because of the relief that we’re going to be able to do what’s needed. Remember that the majority of vets in the UK are on salary, not commission, so we earn the same regardless of what you spend. We especially don’t enjoy having to choose a less-than-ideal treatment when finances become an issue.
Of course, there are times that even the fall back of insurance doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do everything that’s necessary. With the rising cost of medicine, it’s not unheard of for insurance money to run out part-way through a treatment course. There are also insurance policies that don’t cover some things, or which only pay out a certain amount if the dog is over a certain age.
Learning your way around the pitfalls of pet insurance is a tricky task. From my own experiences as a pet owner, even though I’m “in the know”, I still found it almost impossible to choose a policy I was happy with. Having said this, however, there were some policies, conditions and snags I knew I would definitely want to avoid.
Cheap is not always cheerful
It goes without saying that cheap policies are often cheap for a reason. They’ve got to make money somehow, right? If a policy seems suspiciously cheap, check reviews and the small print carefully to see if there’s a catch.
Read the small print
I asked some other vets what their worst experiences with insurance were and there were several who found the small print to be quite a surprise. Consider a policy that pays ‘£4,000 per year’. If you read the small print, you might find that this is limited to ‘£400 per condition’. So, although your total pot is £4000, you’d have to claim for 10 different conditions to use it all. Some insurers also limit pay-out for different things. So, your £4000 per year might include ‘no more than £500 on imaging’ or ‘only 10 hydrotherapy sessions’.
I don’t know of any insurance companies that will insure against a ‘pre-existing condition’, which means any disease, accident or illness that started before the policy was taken out. If you think about it, why would they? No home insurer will pay to fix fire damage if the fire happened before you took out your insurance. The important thing to remember is that anything in the clinical notes is considered a pre-existing condition, even if you haven’t claimed for it. When you make a claim with an insurance company, they’ll ask the vet for your pet’s full medical history- and we have to give it to them. They’ll then exclude anything seen as a pre-existing condition. For instance, your dog had an ear infection at 6 months old and you weren’t insured. A year later you get insurance, and then your dog develops a skin allergy. You try to make a claim, but the insurance reject it. Why? Well, since an ear infection is a symptom of allergies, the insurance could consider this to be a pre-existing condition. This means that the sooner you get insurance, the less likely there will be something for them to exclude. You can also ask your vet for a copy of your pet’s medical history to check there isn’t anything in there that could be considered a pre-existing condition.
Insurers may exclude other types of claim even if not a pre-existing condition. It’s common for insurance policies not to pay out for dental claims, pregnancy or giving birth. It may seem obvious, but insurance doesn’t cover routine treatments such as vaccinations, parasite prevention, and neutering. Many insurance companies will also not pay for food, even if the food has been ‘prescribed’ to treat a medical condition. All of these exclusions should be listed in the small print.
Although it can be tempting to switch insurers if your premiums start to go up, it can leave you out-of-pocket. Starting with a new insurance company- or even a new policy within the same company, for instance an upgrade to ‘gold’ cover- starts you over again with a blank sheet and the pre-existing conditions rule comes back into play. So, everything your previous insurer was paying for, the new one would consider a pre-existing condition. This is especially relevant for old dogs who may have a number of expensive conditions being paid out for by your insurance.
Some insurers, especially with older pets, will charge a percentage excess. This means that on top of your usual set-price excess they also charge a percentage excess. As an example, if your dog had a lump removal costing £650 and you claimed on your insurance, you’d pay the excess (example: £100) and a percentage (example: 10%). Of the £650 you’d pay £165 and your insurers would pay the rest. This can make claims late in life expensive, so don’t forget to take this into account when you take out a policy or make treatment decisions for an older pet.
Talk to your vets
When an accident happens, some vets will ask you to pay and claim the money back. Others will allow you to leave the money on your account and then they will apply to your insurers to pay it off directly, which means that you’re not temporarily out of pocket. If this is important to you, talk to your vets about who they’ll do this ‘direct claim’ with. Although vets are not allowed to recommend specific insurance companies or advise as to the specifics of policies, they may give you a list of insurers they’re happy to process claims for, and this is a good indication that they’ve had good dealings with those companies in the past.
How much should you insure for?
The best answer to this question is “as much as you can afford to”. People often don’t realise the cost of medicine and therefore overestimate how much their insurance will cover. To help you work out what level of cover to get, I obtained some estimates for the 5 most commonly claimed for conditions from practices all over the UK.
It’s ok to have no insurance for your pet. But you do need to have a back-up plan for unexpected medical bills. Some people choose to put money aside each month. This is fine, but remember if there is an accident in the first few months then you might not have saved up enough to get the treatment you want for your dog. Some people simply make do with taking extra shifts and selling property to help make up the difference. Whatever you do, make sure you chat it through with your vet so that we can help you stay in budget, and help your pet stay healthy.
Types of Policy
There are two broad categories of policy. Some policies are ’non-lifetime’ or ’12-month’ policies and others are ‘lifetime’ or ‘covered for life’ policies.
If your policy covers a condition for 12 months, this means that at the end of the 12 months (regardless of whether your pet is better or not) they will stop paying for the condition. This condition becomes a ‘pre-existing’ condition and they will never pay out for it again.
Some policies are limited by funds. They will pay a certain amount- say, £1000 per condition. Once you have reached the limit, you are on your own and this condition becomes a pre-existing condition.
Annual Lifetime Policies.
These policies cover your dog for a certain amount per year- say, £4000- and at the end of the year this money-pot is refilled, regardless of the number of claims made. None of the conditions claimed for are considered pre-existing, you can carry on claiming for them year after year.
Per Condition Per Year Policies
These policies are similar to the lifetime policy, but instead of having a total budget they set a budget for each condition in a 12-month period- say, £1000 per condition per year. At the end of the 12 months the money pot is replenished, and you can continue claiming for the condition.
Accident-only policies are often very cheap and can be a good option for people struggling to afford insurance. Unfortunately, diseases are more common and can even be more expensive than some emergency surgeries, so this does leave a large hole in your cover that you are expected to fill.
Public Liability Insurance
Public Liability insurance covers you if your dog damages people or property, for instance if they cause a car accident. Most insurance companies offer this as part of the package, but it is worth considering getting public liability insurance even if you choose not to take out insurance against veterinary fees.