There’s no way to anticipate what will happen in the future — you can’t predict when or how your pets will get sick, or how much it will cost. Pet insurance protects against unexpected veterinary bills. Many pet owners pay out-of-pocket for their pets' medical expenses, but most Americans struggle to afford a $1500 emergency vet bill. The right pet insurance can be a lifesaver. Learn the basics.
Our pets’ lives come with uncertainties. No matter how careful or responsible we are, our puppies find and devour socks, our kittens climb and stumble off shelves, and we have a responsibility to mend them back to health. We love our pets, and pet insurance is one tool that enables us to care for them without financial burden.
Table of Contents
- The Costs of Pet Care
- The Cost of Medical Emergencies
- Breed-Specific Health Risks
- Pet Insurance Coverage & Savings
- Costs, Deductibles, and Fine Print
- How To Get Lower Rates
- What Are The Alternatives?
- The Verdict
- Key Takeaways
- Questions & Answers
The Costs of Pet Care
To understand how valuable pet insurance can be, you should first understand the all the expenses most pet owners face.
Routine Costs Every Pet Parent Has To Budget For
The ASPCA estimates dog parents spend approximately $355 to $650 annually on food, toys, treats, and other miscellaneous expenses depending on the size, breed, and location of their animals.
Infrequent purchases such as crates, carrier bags, and cages can cost an additional $470 to $560. In total, the first-year costs of owning dogs and cats are approximately $1,000 to $2,000.
Meanwhile, the average cost for a routine veterinary checkup or wellness visit can cost anywhere from $50 to $250. Vaccines are pretty affordable. You’ll likely pay about $100 for a dog’s core vaccines, for example.
(Image from AARP.org)
💡 NOTE: Reoutine care, wellness visits, and vaccines aren’t what you need to be concerned with when it comes to your pet’s vet costs.
If your pet comes down with an illness, or if your vet discovers something amiss at a regular checkup, you can expect your vet bills to go up substantially.
The biggest costs come from unexpected emergencies and surgeries - which is where pet insurance can be a literal lifesaver.
The Cost of Medical Emergencies
Unforeseen (and expensive) emergency veterinary care is almost impossible to predict - and all too common. In fact, 1 in 3 pets will need emergency treatment within a given year.
Accidents like dog bites, fractures, and object ingestion can cost thousands of dollars to treat. A ligament repair in dogs can cost $3,000 to $7,000, not including X-rays, anesthesia, and follow-up care (yes, physical therapy exists for pets!).
(Image from Camino Veterinary Hospital)
For cats, a urinary obstruction (UO) often requires lab testing, antibiotics, and even surgery, which can cost up to $3,000.
At the very least, the average cost for unexpected veterinary care can range anywhere from $800 to $1,500 or more.
Considering 69% of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings to spend in an emergency, it’s troubling to think what could happen to a family if they are suddenly overwhelmed with thousands of dollars in veterinary expenses.
In the worst cases, a pet medical emergency can lead to long-term expenses.
When this happens, not only do you need to cover the cost of your visit to the emergency vet, but you also have to factor in long-term costs to your yearly budget.
If your pet is seriously injured or develops a chronic illness, they may need regular treatment and medications to maintain their quality of life.
💡 PRO TIP: What injuries and illnesses are considered emergencies can vary by insurance provider. There are some standards, like blunt trauma (hit by a car) or kidney failure. But others can be more grey, like toxin exposure. If you need help undestanding what a policy actually covers, contact one of Pawlicy Advisor's licensed experts.
An Example Of How Much Common Emergencies Can Cost You
Let’s take two common examples with some rough averages:
- A dog with an injured leg who was suddenly found limping: The cost at an ER facility would likely comprise of an exam fee ($100), radiographs ($180), injectable pain medications ($50), plus oral medications($60).
- An allergic reaction: Exam fee ($100) + injectable medications ($50) + oral meds if needed ($60) + Blood work if needed ($30).
It's important to note that emergency costs vary based on too many factors to ever predict an accurate total.
For example, the exam fee at an emergency animal hospital can be $170 at some hospitals or $75 at others.
The estimate for parvo disease in puppies is $1000 at some hospitals versus $5,000 to $8,000 at others.
These price ranges are dependent on the geographical area, hospital size, level of care facility, and other factors.
How Pet Emergencies Can Lead To Long-Term Expenses
If an emergency is not completely addressed (often due to limited funds of the pet owner), an issue may be overlooked or neglected which can lead to additional ongoing treatment costs.
Large expenses can also lead to debt, where interest charges will increase overall costs even further. You should avoid this if at all possible, and considering pet insurance is often the best first step.
For example, perhaps Fido suffers a hip dislocation that just won't stay in place (chronic subluxation).
If the pet parent does not have the funds to thoroughly investigate or address the issue, the ideal treatment may be put off to "see how it heals” - which can lead to chronic pain for the pet and recurring medication expenses for the pet parent.
Or, perhaps a pet has a urinary tract infection (UTI) and the pet owner didn’t want to pay to have a culture analyzed. Instead, they just start antibiotics… and create a UTI that is now resistant to antibiotic treatment...Now, much more expensive medications will be required, and potentially even hospitalization or worse (the CDC estimates 35,000 Americans die per year to antibiotic-resistant infections).
Sometimes you really need to do that extra test or that extra treatment.
It's difficult to know when, which is why pet insurance is worth the cost for many pet owners: the protection grants finanacial peace of mind so that treatment conversations can be about what’s the right thing to do, instead of how much it will cost.
Breed-Specific Health Risks
If you're uncertain whether pet insurance is worth the cost, you should be mindful of breed-specific health risks that can signigicantly increase the price of pet ownership throughout their lifespan.
For example, the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals reports that Pugs have a nearly 7x higher likelihood of developing hip dysplasia than poodles, which often costs $1,700 to $5,000 to treat.
Another example, French bulldogs are more susceptible to hemivertebrae, a spinal deformity in which vertebrae develop wedge-shaped and cause an angle in the spine. Identifying this deformity will likely require imaging, and treating it may require surgery. Both can cost thousands of dollars.
Larger dog breeds are also more likely to develop health issues that smaller dogs aren’t. Arthritis and certain heart conditions are more common in larger dogs, and both may require ongoing treatment that could cost hundreds or thousands each year.
Your pet's breed-specific risks of developing certain illnesses or chronic conditions are an important factor you must consider when budgeting for the costs of keeping your pet healthy.
💡 NOTE: A Shar Pei puppy named Wrigley came down with a genetic disease (Shar Pei Fever) that requires expensive medication to stabilize each month. This puppy belongs to Pawlicy Advisor's CEO, Woody Mawhinney, and his pet insurance saves him hundreds of dollars every month for Wrigley's prescription meds. He co-founded Pawlicy Advisor to help other pet parents find the right converage for their pet's breed, age, and location.
Pet Insurance Coverage & Savings
Pet health insurance (for dogs and cats) works similarly to property insurance. You purchase coverage from an insurance provider, and your plan reimburses you for certain expenses related to your pet’s healthcare. With top insurance companies you get reimbursed for 80%, 90%, and even 100% of the vet bill (after your deductible is met).
Like most insurance options, you'll pay a monthly premium to keep your coverage active. Once your deductible is met, you can expect your insurance provider to pay for your pet’s eligible expenses, based on your reimbursement rate, up to your limit.
What Most Plans Cover:
- Unexpected injuries?accidents (like foreign object injestion, broken bones, and more)
- Unexpected illnesses (like cancer, gluacoma, hip displasia, parvovirus, and more)
- Surgery (like cruciate ligament tears, cataracts, and more)
- Prescription medication
- Tests/diagnostics (like x-rays, blood tests, MRIs, and more)
- Emergency exam fees
Some plans also include coverage for alternative therapies (acupunture, chiropractic, hydrotherapy, etc.), hospital boarding, and even lost pet advertising/rewards.
What Is Not Covered:
- Pre-existing conditions
- Routine care/Wellness exams
- Preventative care
- Specific exclusions
💡 NOTE: Although no pet insurance will cover pre-existing conditions, some providers will cover curable conditions after a certain waiting period with no recurring symptoms. Also, pets with a pre-existing condition are still eligible for insurance, their coverage would only exclude the specific condition that already exists. Lastly, if you're interested in plans that cover routine care, consider a Wellness Plan add-on.
Types of Plans
|Coverage||Accident-Only||Accident-Illness||Accident-Illness + Wellness Add-on|
|Emergency care for accidents||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Treatment & tests for injuries||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Emergency care for illnesses||No||Yes||Yes|
|Treatment & tests for illnesses||No||Yes||Yes|
Accident-only plans will only provide reimbursement for emergency care related to accidents, like if your pet is hurt by a car or injures themselves by falling down the stairs. This type of coverage does not cover illnesses or breed-specific issues
Accident-illness plans provide coverage for both accidents and unexpected illnesses. It is the most common, as it represents about 98% of plans issued by the pet insurance industry. This type of plan won’t cover preventive care or pre-existing conditions, but you can expect reimbursement for almost everything else.
Finally, you can purchase an accident-illness plan with a wellness add-on. This is the most expensive type of plan on the market, but it provides the most comprehensive level of coverage. The only health issues that aren’t covered pre-existing conditions.
When comparing providers you'll want to look for the right blend of comprehsive coverage and lifetime value.
Costs, Deductibles, and Fine Print
The peace of mind knowing you’re financially covered in case of an emergency or breed-specific health issue is invaluable.
How Much Does Pet Insurance Cost?
On average, the monthly premium for $47 for dog health insurance and $29 for cats, according to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association (NAPHIA). It’s important to note that there's a wide range in pricing (many see rates as low as $12/mo, others might see rates as high as $100/mo) depending on your pet's breed, age, location, as well as the deductible, reimbursement rate, and payout limits you choose.
- A Chihuahua puppy in Sacramento, California costs $22 to $31/mo to insure.
- An adult Golden Retriever in Newark, New Jersey costs $43 to $100/mo to insure.
- And a cat in Austin, Texas averages around $16 to $22/mo to insure.
Another example, here's a look at Florida's cost chart:
Ultimately, paying a small bill upfront makes it possible to afford treatment for your pet at any age, which is why, for many owners, pet insurance is well worth the cost:
💡PRO TIP: You can see how much pet insurance costs on average where you live with Pawlicy Advisor's database. Find your state. Simply select you state from the dropdown menu and you'll see a chart of average insurance costs across your state's top three cities for a few variation of dog and cat ages and sizes.
Deductibles, Claims, and Policy Terms
It's important to understand a policy's deductible, reimbursement rate, maximum payout limit, waiting peroids, and exclusions before enrolling.
Your deductible is what you need to pay before your provider will reimburse any eligible expenses.
For example, if you had a $200 deductible on a plan with a 90% reimbursement rate and your cat needed a $1,400 dental extraction... you'd ultimately save $1,080 (e.g. $1400 - $200 = $1200... and 90% of $1200 is $1,080).
The best plans are annual limits, and many offer unlimited payouts. This means you need to meet your deductible each year, but once you do the ammount the payout is potential unlimited. Considering how many older pets develop cancer, having an unlimmited max payout can be a lifesaver.
Your waiting period determines when your coverage kicks in. Be aware that different plans/providers have diferent waiting periods, and they can even vary by condition - so it's import to read the fine print.
For example, two different plans might look almost identical until you look into the fine print and find that one has a 12 month waiting period for knee injuries where as the other's is only 30 days. If you have a larger dog who more prone to knee injuries, you most certainly would not want the plan whose knee injury coverage takes 12 months to kick in.
Key Factors that affect your cost:
- Size (height, weight)
- Age (compared to its typical life expectancy)
- Common indoor and outdoor risks in area
- Term and length of insurance policy
- Reimbursment Rate
- Payout Limit
- Plan type
- Policy provider
💡PRO TIP: When comparing pet insurance options, you must dive into the fine print to understand any exclusions and distinct per-condition waiting periods - as well as have an understanding of what conditions your breed is most at risk for. This can be alot of work, so I highly recommend trying Pawlicy Advisor to get a custom analysis of which plans best fit your breed, age, location, and budget.
How To Get Lower Rates
You can save on pet insurance by enrolling when your pets are still young, as your monthly premiums are guaranteed to be lower. Some pet insurance providers will also give you a discount on your bill if you agree to make annual payments instead of monthly payments. Others offer discounts if you insure multiple pets under the same provider.
Another way to keep your premiums low is to select a higher deductible, but keep in mind that you’ll have to reach that deductible by paying out-of-pocket before your insurance plan begins to reimburse your veterinary costs.
Similarly, you can keep costs down if you select a lower reimbursement rate or a lower coverage limit, but this will limit the amount you receive from your insurer if your pet gets seriously ill or injured.
What Are The Alternatives?
Most pet owners do not adequately prepare for veterinary care when they adopt their pet, which is understandable. Who wants to think about the vet budget when they’re about to welcome a new member of the family?
Families who are too eager to introduce a pet into their lives are often tempted to adopt first and worry about expenses later.
Of course, this leads to challenges at the vet later on.
One fellow veterinarian said he has 5 to 10 difficult discussions per day with pet owners who cannot afford the cost of their animals’ care.
Insurance executives and veterinarians frequently say the average amount a pet owner can afford at the veterinary office for a one-time expense is approximately $1,500.
The alternative to paying for necessary care is putting your animal up for adoption, or in worse-case scenarios...euthanization. This is obviously distressing for everyone involved.
These dilemmas can and should be avoided.
As a pet owner, you only have a few financial options for covering the cost of veterinary care if you are paying out of pocket.
Options For Covering The Costs Of Veterinary Care
- You could set aside enough savings to pay when the time comes
- You could borrow from friends and family
- You could launch a crowdfunding campaign
- You could apply for charitable grants
- You could acquire veterinary financing on credit, or
- You could purchase pet health insurance.
If you look online, you might find people touting the importance of financing your own pet care and setting aside money each month over a pet’s lifetime to pay for veterinary bills. However, this does not work if your pet needs an expensive surgery or test before you've accumulated enough savings...nor does it work if you have more than one incident.
1. When thinking about building a savings account, consider this scenario:
You put $50 a month into a savings account for your pet, totaling $600 per year. By the time your pet is ten years old, you have a nest egg of $6,000 to cover any age-related issues that could arise. However, this strategy is deeply flawed.
Don’t get me wrong, there is tremendous value in building a rainy-day fund for your vet care and a possible medical emergency. It means there is a higher likelihood that Fido’s health issues will be treated, and you won’t have to opt for expensive financing options to make sure your dogs and cats stay in good health.
The problem is that your pet will not wait for a time that is convenient for you to become sick or get into trouble.
Sure, saving $50 per month, you could pay $5,000 or more for a CCL surgery if it occurred in your dog’s 8th year of life or later. But issues can arise anytime, even in your pet’s first or second year of life.
Or what if there’s more than one emergency in the lifespan of your pet? If you’ve saved just enough to cover the $5,000 CCL surgery, what happens when your pup later develops an eye infection, a cancerous growth, or the other leg needs CCL surgery?
What if these expenses need to be addressed earlier in your pets lifespan, before you’ve saved enough to cover them?
2. The second strategy — borrowing from friends and family — is great in theory, but impractical for the majority of pet owners.
Few pet owners have a network that is able or willing to pay at a moment’s notice. Unless payment is discussed in advance, finding a friend or family member willing to pay for immediate care may be difficult.
3. The third option, crowdfunding, has no guarantee your crowdfunding campaign will be successful, and most people don’t start crowdfunding until after the bills come in.
This is often the last resort for pet parents as most people don’t like the idea of asking strangers for money .
4. Charitable grants are another option.
However, you should not rely on these as what you're eligible for will depend on loaction, income, and other factors. These are certainly worth applying for, but should not be your "plan A". This options is more of a back up for those who don't have insurance or are dealing with expenses for a pre-existing condition.
Pawlicy Advisor built a free tool that matches you to potential grant programs you may be eligible for.
5. Lastly, there's veterinary financing/credit solutions.
Veterinary credit solutions can be very helpful for urgent pet care. However, an important note to consider, they may involve a qualification process, potentially high variable interest rates. If you already have a substantial amount of debt due to student loans, credit cards, or a mortgage, adding more debt on top of it isn’t always a good idea.
As you can see, the alternatives to pet health insurance are not ideal options. Savings accounts offer only limited protection, and other options like crowdfunding or grant programs should really reserved as backup plans. Only pet insurance gives you peace of mind and protection from multiple emergencies and the most costly expenses.
Savings Tips From William Hodges, DVM
- Avoid costly emergencies by keeping your pet healthy with exercise, a healthy diet, and routine wellness checkups and preventative care.
- Avoid ER facilities when possible. They are there for a reason, but almost always more expensive.
- Utilize over-the-counter medications.
- Opt for the generic version instead of the name brand.
- Do your due diligence on research. Come to the hospital with good questions to make the most of your time with the veterinarian as this might avoid second or third visits.
- Consider getting a second opinion on when to treat or spend on diagnostics. Sometimes treating without good reason can make a problem worse.
- Use Pawlicy Advisor to find the right pet insurance to hedge your risk and have the bulk of any unexpected costs covered by your provider.
💡 PRO TIP: Most vet offices are fairly open about their costs and will tell you about them if asked. Pet insurance companies can be another resource for these costs as they need a lot of data on the costs of veterinary care to better approximate coverage needs. My advice: call the vet office.
With the right pet insurance plan, you can provide your pet with diagnostics, treatments, and medications without serious financial risk.
As a veterinarian, I will also say that over the last few years the most significant benefit of pet insurance I’ve seen is peace of mind.
(Image from Trustpilot)
Of course, financial protection is massively helpful and there are additional benefits such as promptness and ease of care. But all of these culminate to a sense of security and peace of mind, and that is huge.
Something else to consider, after surveying more than 20,000 pet owners only 19% said they could afford a $5,000 vet bill without pet insurance...and another study showed that 95% of pet parents see their pet as a family.
A "Should I Get Pet Insurance" Decision Tree
- If you have a healthy puppy or kitten... I would get pet insurance.
- If your puppy/kitten has a pre-existing condition... pet insurance may still be worth getting to cover any new issues that may appear later in your pet's life.
- If you have a healthy mid-age dog or cat... I would get pet insurance before any health issues arise.
- If your dog/cat has a pre-existing condition... pet insurance may still be worth it if your pet is on the younger side or at risk of other health issues.
- If you have a healthy senior dog or cat... I would consider pet insurance. 50% of dogs over the age of 10 develop cancer, so if your pet is a healthy senior, pet insurance could add a layer of protection should they need cancer treatment.
- If your senior dog/cat has a pre-existing condition... pet insurance is probably not a good fit. Instead, I would stay on top of preventative care and maybe increase routine vet visits, while maximizing a pet health savings account.
How To Find the Right Pet Insurance Plan
If you've come to agree that pet insurance is often worth the cost, there are resources that can help you find the best provider for your unique needs.
Pawlicy Advisor is a pet insurance marketplace recommended by veterinarians. It's built to educate pet owners about breed-specific coverage and bring transparency to lifetime pricing across top providers like ASPCA, Pets Best, FIGO, Petplan, Lemonade and more.
As pet parents, they know how overwhelming it can be to face challenging and urgent pet health issues. As pet insurance customers, they also know how valuable insurance policies are to other pet parents and how simple the pet insurance enrollment process should be for everyone.
They offer a free service that will compare top pet insurance brands and your pet’s breed-specific health risks to find policies that save you money and headache.
In the past, not many pet parents knew about pet insurance, and very few people were aware of how many plans were available on the market. Most pet owners who had insurance only became aware of it through their vet. If you wanted to compare plans, you had to visit each provider individually to receive a quote.
💡 PRO TIP: Today, you can get multiple quotes across pet insurance providers instantly through Pawlicy Advisor. You can even create your own comparison charts on-the-fly.
I want your pet to be as happy and healthy as possible. I believe removing financial barriers from important pet care decisions is a key step toward this goal.
William Hodges, DVM, has focused on Emergency Medicine since 2014 and now helps specialty animal hospital ER services across the U.S. Learn more about Dr. Hodges in his bio below.
- 1 in 3 pets will need emergency veterinary treatment within a given year.
- Should you get pet insurance? For many pet owners the answer is yes, because it provides valuable financial protection for unexpected veterinary costs and invaluable peace of mind.
- Pawlicy Advisor's marketplace will show you plans from top providers ranked by a custom Coverage Score and Lifetime Pricing Score based on your pet's breed, age, and location so that you can decide if pet insurance is worth it - for you.
Questions & Answers
Is pet insurance worth the money?
Yes, if it's the right plan (and your pet is not very old with existing conditions). You can’t predict when or how your pets will get sick, or how much it will cost. Unexpected veterinary costs can add up to thousands of dollars.
Even if you try to save up money in advance, you could come up short. Pet insurance prevents you from having to take on lasting debt or forgo veterinary care.
What is the average cost of pet insurance per month?
The average monthly premium for a dog is about $47 while the average monthly premium for a cat is about $29. However, the costs of pet health insurance vary depending on the pet and your choices. If needed, you could opt for less coverage or a lower reimbursement rate to get a lower monthly premium.
Does pet insurance make sense? Is it worth having?
Pet insurance makes sense from a risk perspective, and it can give you peace of mind. You can expect your pets to need medical care at some point, just as you can expect to need medical yourself in the future.
Do vets recommend pet insurance?
Veterinarians do recommend pet insurance because it helps ensure the pet will receive the care they need and won’t be euthanized (or abandoned) for economic reasons. It also allows veterinarians and pet parents to focus on care during their consultations rather than finances.
Does every vet take pet insurance? Can it be used anywhere?
Yes, becuase pet insurance reimburses you isntead of paying the doctor. This means your pet insurance will work at any licensed vet or animal hospital across the USA - and you don't have to worry about being "in-network".
Who should consider pet insurance?
Every pet owner should consider pet insurance. Even if you believe you have enough money to cover veterinary costs, pet insurance could still save you thousands of dollars if your pet gets sick or injured.
Especially if you have multiple pets, your out-of-pocket costs could add up considerably without insurance.
Why should I have pet insurance?
Aside from the financial benefits, pet insurance can also protect your dog or cat from missing out on the care they need. Insurance allows for more opportunities to diagnose illnesses and obtain treatment — even expensive treatments like surgeries and cancer care. Like most insurance, pet insurance gives you peace of mind.
Does pet insurance save you money?
Pet insurance saves you money on unexpected vet bills. It reimburses you for covered costs after you pay for services from your veterinarian. Most pet insurance plans reimburse you for accidents and illnesses. You can also purchase a wellness plan add-on to reimburse some of the costs of routine care.
What types of pet insurance can you get for an adopted pet?
There are three types of pet insurance: accident-only plans, accident/illness plans, and wellness plans.
Accident-only plans only cover injuries, whereas accident/illness plans cover the costs of both injuries and diseases. You can add an optional wellness plan to cover the costs of routine checkups. Insuring rescue pets, whether you've adopted a senior cat or a new puppy, is easier than you'd think.