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Pet insurance guards against big vet bills

Kaila and Mark Nickel were saving to buy a house. But their plans took a detour when Penny, their miniature Schnauzer, started shivering uncontrollably. To find out why, the Nickels dug into their down-payment fund.

X-rays revealed an unknown mass in Penny’s stomach. The 2-year-old was unlikely to have cancer, so veterinarians recommended exploratory surgery. The mass turned out to be a collection of blood; the doctors never determined what caused it. Penny is doing fine, but the Oklahoma couple’s bank balance is still recovering. The surgery, medication, and subsequent vet visits cost nearly $4,000.

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Big, unexpected bills like this are prompting more animal lovers to seek pet insurance. An estimated 3 million dogs and 800,000 cats are covered in the United States.

Here are some of the issues to consider:

How does it work? Policies can cover costs associated with emergencies, surgeries, medications, routine care, or ongoing care for conditions such as diabetes. It does not cover conditions that existed before the coverage started.

Coverage adds up to $200 or more annually for cats and $500 or more for dogs, depending on the plan, the animal’s age, and where the pet lives.

Some breeds are prone to certain illnesses. Many policies for bulldogs exclude hereditary conditions like breathing problems, for instance.

Pet policies require the owner to pay the veterinarian first and then submit a claim. Deductibles and coinsurance - portions of the bill the customer is responsible for - are subtracted from the reimbursement, and those also vary by plan.

Shoppers can find policies on the Internet. Some also can get coverage through work.

Is it worth it? Expensive treatments are becoming common in veterinary care. Dogs routinely receive chemotherapy, and animals receive heart pacemakers or stem cell treatments to correct hip problems. Those procedures can cost thousands.

About one in eight pet owners who took animals to the vet in the past year spent $1,000 or more, according to an AP-Petside.com poll conducted last fall.

Even so, proceed with caution before buying a policy. Pet insurance is generally not worth the money, according to Consumer Reports’ senior editor, Tobie Stanger. Unless a pet has serious complications, owners will probably pay more in premiums than they receive in claims coverage over the animal’s lifetime, she said.

Aside from using cash, credit cards, or insurance, pet owners may be able to arrange for a line of credit. These programs can be particularly helpful for anyone who does not have thousands of dollars available on their credit cards. But these accounts charge interest, so shop around.

Instead of insurance, Stanger recommends creating an emergency fund by setting aside money each month. That way, the money is still available if it’s not used for veterinary bills.

Tom Murphy writes for the Associated Press.
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