Joan Merriam: The good, the bad and the ugly of pet insurance |

Joan Merriam: The good, the bad and the ugly of pet insurance

Joan Merriam

Picture this: you and your furry friend are out for a hike in the forest, when suddenly there’s a crashing in the bushes, and what emerges is a 400-pound, five-foot tall black bear that turns and runs … and your easygoing pal instantly turns into something more akin to Godzilla, focused only on capturing his prey.

When your dog returns, he has a huge gash on his head, which means your next stop will be at your veterinarian rather than the nearest Flour Garden, inevitably followed by an eye-popping vet bill.

We’ve all had times when the most mundane activity turns into a veterinary disaster, whether it’s your pup being cornered by an angry bear (or someone else’s out-of-control dog), swallowing something she shouldn’t have (golf, anyone?), eating an entire box of gourmet dog cookies (which my last dog Casey did just after I adopted him), or simply jumping off the bed and rupturing his ACL.

The aftermath is often a vet bill that could break Mike Bloomberg’s budget.

Billionaires aside, how many of us have a spare $1,000 or $2,000 — much less $8,000 or $10,000 — gathering dust in our checking account that we don’t need for monthly necessities like food or rent or utility bills?

There are a number of options you might consider. You could establish a savings account just for emergency pet care — but that won’t work if there’s not enough cash in the account. You could use your personal credit card or CareCredit, a special credit card that offers veterinary care financing — but that won’t work if you have lousy credit or can’t afford the monthly payments (or the 26% annual interest rate!). You could take to singing on the street for cash — but that won’t work if your singing voice is more akin to the croaking of a hoarse frog.

Pet insurance could be the answer.

But before you decide, you need to educate yourself.

Remember that unlike human health insurance, most pet insurance won’t cover everyday care or things like annual checkups. Instead, it’s designed for times when your dog has a serious accident or illness that might otherwise force to you to make a truly horrific decision like euthanizing your beloved companion simply because you can’t afford to treat him.

The problem is, you can’t predict if or when your dog might in fact develop that kind of condition.

That’s the risk you’re taking when you buy veterinary insurance: there’s the chance you may never need it, and you’ll have shelled out all those premium dollars for nothing.

On the other hand, it could enable you to save your dog’s life if something truly catastrophic happens, and paying all those premiums will have been worth it.

If you’ve decided that pet insurance might be the way to go, keep some things in mind as you’re shopping around:

First off, can you afford the monthly premiums?

Are there age limits? (Some companies won’t insure a dog older than seven.)

Does the plan cover pre-existing conditions? (Most plans won’t, and some even exclude breed-specific conditions.)

What percentage of the bill do they pay? (Some companies pay a percentage of a covered cost after you’ve met the deductible, while others reimburse a maximum amount per diagnosis. Either way, you must pay your veterinarian first, then file a claim for reimbursement.)

Is the deductible per-incident or per-year? (Be careful here: if your dog ends up having several different problems in one year, you could end up having to meet the deductible multiple times.)

Are prescription drugs covered? (This can be a huge expense: drug therapy for chronic conditions can end up costing thousands of dollars over the dog’s lifetime.)

Does the policy pay if your pet is being treated and dies? (It’s an awful thought, but end-of-life care and euthanasia can be very expensive.)

There are places on the Web to find unbiased recommendations on veterinary insurance providers. Good places to begin are independent sites like Pet Insurance Review and Consumer Reports. Also check out comparison sites like Canine Journal and Nerd Wallet. Just be careful that the site isn’t sponsored by a pet insurance company — sometimes you can’t tell from the headline on Google.

Finally, remember to compare apples to apples on insurance plans to avoid unpleasant surprises — and as always, read the fine print!

Joan Merriam lives in Nevada County with her Golden Retriever Joey, her Maine Coon cat Indy, and the abiding spirit of her beloved Golden Retriever Casey in whose memory this column is named. You can reach Joan at And if you’re looking for a Golden, be sure to check out Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue.

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