Sunday, May 15, 2011


If you've ever played blackjack at a table with a dealer, you've heard that question.  When the dealer draws an Ace for their up-card, the first thing they say is, "Insurance?  Insurance, anyone?"  Do they have a "10 or a face" card buried?  It's up to you to determine if buying the insurance is worth the risk of the dealer's hand beating your potential "Blackjack" hand. 

Actually, buying insurance of any kind is really a form of legalized gambling.  You've got to evaluate what you are trying to protect and make a judgment as to whether you can afford to take the financial risk that the event in question might just happen.  All sorts of calculations enter into such a decision but, in the end, it's still a gamble on your part since you don't know the outcome ahead of time.  Another example of legalized gambling would be buying shares of stock on the stock don't know the price per share in the, you're gambling that it will make you money instead of losing it. 

Most of us carry insurance on things that we would find it difficult (or, at least, very expensive) to replace or to fund.  Life insurance (benefits those who perhaps depended on the insured), home insurance, auto insurance (collision and liability), and health insurance (especially for high-priced forms of medical care) have been pretty standard considerations for individuals and families for a long time.  Now, a big newcomer to the insurance scene is Pet Health Insurance.

Pet Health Insurance has been around for about 25 years but really didn't become a big business until around the turn of the century...that's the 2000 one, not the 1900 one!  There are now a lot of companies from which to choose.  As to which of these companies a pet owner should consider, a little research and judgment will help make the answer a little more clear.  Pet health insurance is not meant for every pet owner, just as other forms of insurance aren't advisable for everyone.  Each pet owner needs to look at their own situation, their goals for their pet, their financial capability to meet unexpected expenses, and their concept of what constitutes appropriate health care for their pet.  Only then can you make an informed decision as to which pet health insurance company best suits your needs.  This week, Helpful Buckeye will attempt to unravel your questions and curiosities about pet health insurance and, hopefully, by the end of this issue of Questions On Dogs and Cats, you will be able to determine if your financial risk justifies the premiums one of the companies would be charging you.

The American Veterinary Medical Association has collated some guidelines they would like to see followed by any company offering pet health insurance:

The AVMA endorses the concept of pet health insurance that provides coverage to help defray the cost of veterinary medical care.

The AVMA recognizes that viable pet health insurance programs will be important to the future of the veterinary profession's ability to continue to provide high quality and up-to-date veterinary service. These programs should comply with the following guidelines.

Pet health insurance programs should:

1. Require a veterinarian/client/patient relationship in which the veterinarian monitors health maintenance of the animal.

2. Be acceptable to organized veterinary associations, individual veterinarians, insurance providers, the animal owning public, and others interested and involved in promoting the welfare and well being of animals.

3. Have clearly specified protection for the animal owner. The animal insurance provider should disclose to the consumer the coverage provided which may be of most benefit in reducing the financial burdens resulting from medical problems requiring extensive veterinary medical care, as well as the option for coverage for routine and/or wellness health care.

4. Allow animal owners the freedom to select a veterinarian of their choice, and allow for referrals.

5. Meet the rules and regulations of the insurance commission of the state in which the insurance is sold, be readily available to the public, and provide coverage using ethical standards that are approved by the insurance industry.

6. Be consistent with the Principles of Veterinary Medical Ethics.

7. Allow each veterinary facility to establish its own fee structure.

8. Reimburse the animal owner, in a timely manner, for fees previously paid to the veterinarian.

9. Commit to assure that animal owners are aware of how the terms and conditions of their policy will impact their coverage and reimbursement. This includes the type and amount of monetary coverage and concurrent financial obligations such as co-pay, deductible, and other risk-management charges (e.g. surcharges, exclusions) that are integral components of the insurance contract.

The AVMA has also put together some basic considerations which should help you decide if pet health insurance is for you:

Do you need pet insurance?

As veterinary medicine becomes more technologically advanced, the cost of care increases because of the higher costs associated with the equipment, facilities and training required to provide these higher-quality services. For some, the cost of care can cause some anxiety. Pet insurance can help by offsetting some or most of the costs of diagnosing, treating and managing your pet's illness or injury.

But pet insurance isn't for everyone, and there's no magic formula that will tell you if it's right for you and your pet. If you're considering pet insurance, talk to your veterinarian and do some research on your options. Here are some basic considerations:

• Regardless of the insurance provider, your veterinarian should be monitoring the health of your pet as part of a valid Veterinary-Client-Patient Relationship.

• The insurance provider should clearly spell out to you the details, including the limitations and exclusions, of coverage for routine and/or wellness care as well as emergency treatments and conditions that require extensive care. Find out how your premiums will be increased as your pet ages or if you make any claims.

• See if they have add-on options to provide any specific coverage (e.g., dental care, travel insurance, etc.) you may want.

• Find out how they define and handle pre-existing conditions (diseases or conditions your pet already has – or has had – prior to purchasing the insurance plan).

• In some cases, insurance providers will not insure a specific pet or breed of pet, or may limit the number of pets you can insure, if they consider them "high risk."

• Some providers will give multiple pet discounts.

• All of the charges, including co-pays, deductibles, add-on charges and other fees, should be clearly explained to you so you fully understand the policy and its limitations.

• You should be allowed to choose the veterinarian who will provide veterinary care for your pet.

• Pet insurance plans are generally reimbursement plans – you pay the bills up front and are reimbursed by the insurance provider. Ask the insurance provider how claims are processed as well as the time frame for reimbursement of your expenses so you know what to expect. If you're concerned about covering the expenses up front, ask your veterinarian about payment options that will work for you in case you need to make arrangements. (It's best to find out your options ahead of time so you don't have the added stress of trying to make payment arrangements on an emergency basis.)

Your veterinarian may be able to provide you with a recommended pet insurance company based on their experience, but it's ultimately your decision whether or not to purchase pet insurance (and what coverage and from what company you purchase). Below is an alphabetical list of companies that provide pet insurance. The list may not be complete and is intended to provide information and links to help you investigate and decide if pet insurance is right for your pet. The AVMA does not endorse or recommend any one provider over others.


AKC Pet Healthcare Plan,

ASPCA Pet Health Insurance,

Embrace Pet Insurance,


PetFirst Healthcare,

Pets Best,





Faced with the increasing costs of veterinary medical care, more pet owners are now considering whether the premiums for a pet health insurance policy might be worth the benefit when visiting the veterinarian's office.  The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently ran a very informative article on the surge in interest in pet health insurance:

Elizabeth Brown spared no expense in seeking treatment for Maggie, her yellow Labrador retriever who was diagnosed with cancer in 2003. Radiation treatments and surgeries added up to more than $4,200 before Maggie died in 2008.  The experience prompted Brown, who is retired and lives in south St. Louis County, to buy a pet health insurance policy for $90 a month when she later brought home a puppy named Caramel.

Pet health insurance has been available in the United States for nearly 30 years, but expanded veterinary treatments and changing attitudes toward the family pet have bolstered the number of policies over the last decade, even during the economic downturn.  "The humanization of pets is driving it, as people are more likely to treat pets as four-legged members of their family," said Grant Biniasz, a spokesperson for VPI Pet Insurance based in Brea, Calif., the largest pet insurance provider in the nation.

The growth has drawn several new insurance providers into the market in recent years, including St. Louis-based Nestlé Purina PetCare. The company started its PurinaCare insurance subsidiary in 2008 and has since expanded coverage to all 50 states.  Pet insurance has grown at a glacial pace in the U.S., but it has gained speed in the last decade. Three percent of the nation's 78 million dogs and 1 percent of its 93 million cats are now covered, according to a recent American Pet Products Association estimate. That's up from 1 percent of dogs and virtually no cats covered in 1998.  How much could this industry grow? Insurance has gained wider acceptance in some European countries, such as the United Kingdom, where 20 percent of pets have policies, and Sweden, where it's estimated at least 30 percent of pets are covered, according to New York-based research firm Packaged Facts.  PurinaCare believes that eventually 10 percent of U.S. pets will be covered by insurance.

Changes in people's social support systems — higher divorce rates, fewer children and people living farther away from their families — has helped drive this trend, said James Serpell, a veterinary ethics professor at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine.  "We're using animals to replace what we're losing in human social relationships," he said.  With that evolution, pet owners now expect medical care for their pets to match medical care for themselves.  "People ask now, 'Why can't my dog get dialysis?' People increasingly think health care they get from their vets should be like what they get for their children," Serpell said.

Yet, veterinary care isn't cheap. It's second only to food in the amount people spend on pets. Of the $50 billion expected to be spent this year on pets, $14.11 billion will be for vet bills, up from $13 billion last year.


In 1982, VPI Pet Insurance issued the first pet insurance policy in the United States. VPI has long dominated the industry, but it has lost market share in recent years as more providers emerged. VPI had 52 percent market share in 2009, according to Packaged Facts, down from 68 percent in 2005.  "They sort of had the party to themselves until 2004-2005, when new companies started entering the market with new plans and pitches," said David Lummis, senior pet market researcher for Packaged Facts.

The number of pet insurance providers in the nation doubled over the last decade from six to a dozen in 2010.  Among the newcomers is Nestlé Purina. After studying the pet insurance market for three years, the company felt it could be competitive by drawing on its experience and research in pet health.  According to company executives, a void existed in the market for people to access information about what pet policies covered. Nestlé Purina posts copies of its policies online for customers to view. The potential exists for Nestlé Purina, which is owned by Swiss-based Nestlé, to grow its insurance business globally.  "Other Purina subsidiaries around the world have expressed interest in pet insurance, but our current focus is limited to the North American market," said Dr. David Goodnight, a veterinarian and president of PurinaCare, based in San Antonio.  Nestlé Purina wouldn't disclose PurinaCare's revenue or market share. But Packaged Facts estimates it has less than 1 percent of the North American pet insurance market. Pet insurance revenue in North America totaled $354 million in 2009, up from $310 million in 2008, according to a Packaged Facts estimate.  The emergence of a global consumer products conglomerate of Nestlé's size in the pet insurance market is a sign of the market's strength and growth potential, Lummis said.  "Nestlé Purina is a very cautious, conservative company, and they really look before they leap," he said.

Its rivals include pet retailer PetCo and the financial services division of grocery chain Kroger. There's speculation that Wal-Mart will introduce a pet insurance product at its Canadian stores this year.

"I think that the tipping point will be when big retailers get into it, and we're right on the verge with retailers exploring it," said Kristen Lynch, executive director of the nonprofit North American Pet Health Insurance Association, whose members include pet insurance providers.


Monthly pet insurance premiums can start at around $10 but can exceed $100 for some older dogs. Pre-existing conditions are typically excluded, and pet owners are reimbursed after submitting claims.  Providers' policies vary. Some of the higher-end preventive plans cover heartworm and flea medications in addition to vaccines and annual exams. Some of the lower-cost plans just provide coverage for unexpected accidents and illnesses.

A $1,180 vet bill for a dog's broken leg under VPI's Super Plan, for example, will reimburse the pet owner $1,002. With a lower monthly payment, VPI will reimburse $626 of the vet's bill.

Nestlé Purina tweaked its offerings last year to include a plan that allows pet owners to pay lower premiums in exchange for bearing a higher percentage of the bill, between 30 percent and 40 percent of eligible expenses.

Despite the cost, more pet owners are taking out insurance policies to avoid price shock at the vet's office.

"Nobody's expecting a big pet bill, and then all of a sudden, they have a big problem like a car accident (involving the pet) or illness," said Dr. Wayne Hause, a veterinarian in Bridgeton who specializes in clinical oncology and neurology.  Visits to his office start at $120 but can quickly add up to several thousand dollars when multiple procedures are performed. More people are coming to his practice with pet insurance policies, although pets covered with insurance still total less than 10 percent of his clients, he said.  "The people that walk in with pet insurance are much happier, because they can take the financial aspect out of decisions relating to their pets," Hause said.

Dr. Noelle Miles, a veterinarian in Millstadt and president of the Greater St. Louis Veterinary Medical Association, said treatment for some chronic diseases such as cancer can cost pet owners more than $300 a month. Many pet owners are willing to pay the cost, with or without insurance.

Consumer Reports' Money Adviser newsletter published an article last fall with an analysis of four pet health insurers — VPI, ASPCA Pet Health Insurance, 24PetWatch QuickCare and Trupanion — and concluded that for generally healthy animals, pet insurance isn't worth the cost. For most owners, establishing an emergency fund for unexpected pet bills is a better choice.

Still, for young pets that develop a chronic condition or illness after the policy is in place, having the policies paid off, according to the report.  "The main thing is, whenever you're shopping for those plans, it's important to look very carefully at the fine print and look at all of the exceptions," said Tobie Stanger, a Consumer Reports senior editor and author of the report.

For Brown, who paid several thousand dollars out-of-pocket for vet bills, the peace of mind in knowing she won't face unexpected veterinary expenses is worth the price of a monthly premium.

"I like that it pays for shots, and when Caramel did need to seek treatment for a dog bite, I was reimbursed promptly," she said.

This article from:

Not only is pet health insurance becoming more popular with pet owners, it is also becoming a more popular offering by many companies as an employee benefit.

More companies offering workers chance to insure animals

With the bill for veterinary care of dogs, cats and other household animals growing, more companies are offering pet insurance as an employee benefit or discounted perk.

Veterinary Pet Insurance, the largest provider of pet insurance in the U.S., said that in 2010 it added almost 400 large companies and associations to its list of 2,200 groups that offer pet insurance as a voluntary employee benefit.

Among those now offering voluntary pet insurance to employees is Menomonee Falls-based Kohl's Corp (Wisconsin).

"Five years ago, the group channel represented 12% of business," said VPI spokesman Grant Biniasz. "Today, the group channel represents 21% of business."

The American Pet Products Association Inc. projects that pet owners will spend $12.2 billion on veterinary care in 2011. That is up from $11 billion last year and $8.2 billion five years ago.

The rising tab for vet care hits consumers directly in the pocketbook unless they have insurance to cover part of the cost the way health insurance does for humans.

"Veterinary costs are growing faster than inflation and people are aware of that," said Chris Middleton, director of sales and marketing for Pets Best Insurance. "The sophistication of veterinary medicine is growing. Caught early enough, a dog or cat with cancer - if you have the resources to take it to the vet and get appropriate treatment - stands a really good chance of having a normal life span."

Some companies offer pet insurance to employees as a voluntary benefit that includes a payroll deduction. In the case of VPI, the premiums for the employee are 5% lower than if he or she had purchased the policy independently, Biniasz said. The group insurance discount is higher for people with multiple pets who enroll through an employer.

"The average monthly premium for a dog will be between $30 and $40 a month," Biniasz said. "This may be lower for a young dog with a high deductible, or higher for an older dog with a low deductible, but the majority of policyholders fall within this range."

Cats, on average, cost $20 to $30 a month to insure, he said.

Employee perk

Some companies offer pet insurance as a discounted employee perk, similar to the way they would offer a group discount for membership in a health club or to buy merchandise from particular retailers. The monthly premium is paid directly to the insurer via the employee's credit or debit card.

That's how most PurinaCare Pet Health Insurance policies have been offered to workers.

"In most cases, it is a 5% discount if they enroll one pet, 10% if they enroll two pets or more," said David Goodnight, president and chief operating officer of PurinaCare.

According to the American Pet Products Association, cat owners spent an average of $423 on surgical veterinary visits last year, up from $278 in 2008. Dog surgery costs roughly the same on average, but can be expensive depending on the problem.

In one claim example cited by PurinaCare, the cost of surgery and care to a 4-year-old mixed breed dog that tore her anterior cruciate ligament amounted to $1,433, of which about $946 was covered by insurance.

Employers who offer pet insurance as an employee benefit or discounted perk do it for a variety of reasons.

"Companies usually add VPI pet insurance to their benefits package because employees have requested the benefit and/or a human resources executive has been exposed to the benefit through advertising or at a trade show and thinks it would be a good fit for his or her company," Biniasz said.

Said PurinaCare's Goodnight: "We have found that more and more companies are offering it as a means to provide as many benefits as possible to their employees while still controlling costs. Pet insurance allows them to offer a benefit at virtually no cost to the organization."

Know what's covered

The American Veterinary Medical Association said pet insurance is increasing and welcomed by the profession.

"It certainly is growing in popularity, and we do endorse the concept of pet health insurance, most notably because it does defray the cost of some veterinary care," said spokesman David Kirkpatrick. "If consumers/pet owners have an opportunity to improve the health of their pet while also saving money, that certainly is a good thing and can translate into doing what they have to do to make sure that their pets stay healthy."

But he added that "pet owners really need to do their homework to find out what the different companies and policies offer and don't offer."

"The health insurance program, we feel, should honor the veterinarian-client relationship," Kirkpatrick said. "In other words, let the veterinarian and the client make the calls as far as what types of treatments the animal needs. We haven't heard issues related to that, but that certainly is one of our primary concerns."

Overall nationwide, pet insurance for dogs has been growing, but there still are a lot without insurance, according to the American Pet Products Association pet owner survey. Last year, 4% of dogs - about 3.1 million - had health insurance, up from 1% in 1998. But only 1% of cats, or 800,000, were insured - the same percentage as in 1998.

This information from:
For another point of view on the subject of pet health insurance and whether it benefits the pet owner as well as the veterinarian, consider this opinion from "The Irreverent Veterinarian":

Pet insurance – is it a good thing or a bad thing?

I believe pet insurance is a good thing for pet owners at this time. And I say "at this time" because that may not always be the case. I don't have a crystal ball to see into the future, so it's safe to say I can't predict how the pet insurance industry may change in the future.

Before I go any further, let me introduce myself for those of you that don't know me. I'm the Irreverent Veterinarian. I speak my mind and give you my honest opinion. I won't sweet-talk you or sugarcoat the truth. I tell it like it is – to you, the drug companies, the pet product manufacturers, professional breeders and pet owners. Some might say that I'm truthful to a fault. Some of the pet owners, drug companies, pet product manufacturers and breeders who read my columns get really angry. It is hard hearing the truth.

So back to the topic of "insurance".
In many ways – human health insurance companies have nearly ruined human medicine. The question is – will pet insurance change the practice of veterinary medicine?  I know several physicians that hate their jobs – and it has everything to do with HMO's and insurance companies. And many people who have health insurance agree that it is less than ideal. Insurance companies have gone as far as dictating the care a patient receives for a given condition. This has caused frustration amongst human medical staff and reduced quality of care (in the opinions of many). Instead of doing what is BEST – physicians find themselves doing what is covered. Instead of taking their time with a patient – the insurance coverage per exam is so low – they are forced to see many patients in an hour.

So there are really two questions.  First - is insurance good for pets and vets? At this time, I believe that pet insurance is a good thing and that this will continue to be the case, at least for the next several years. So if you have pet insurance, or if you're thinking about getting pet insurance – don't worry.

Second – is insurance good for the veterinary profession. This is what I'm not sure about.

Every February there is a large veterinary continuing education meeting in Las Vegas called the Western Veterinary Conference. It is a very good and big meeting that veterinarians and veterinary support staff attend to learn what's new in veterinary medicine and practice management.  At the last meeting, there was an open forum and discussion about insurance and that discussion led to speculation about what pet insurance could do to the profession of veterinary medicine.  Many old school veterinarians have been VERY reluctant to sign up with insurance – as they have seen the bad changes that have occurred in human medicine.

So the real question is – is there a chance that the veterinary profession could one day find themselves under the control of insurance companies as human physicians are now? There is. But it is not even close – years and years away as far as we can tell.  This is a concern amongst veterinarians. But right now this is definitely not the case. Insurance companies do not currently dictate how veterinary cases are managed.

My Final Thoughts on Pet Insurance

Nobody knows what the future will hold, but the pet insurance industry, as it exists today, is a good thing. It gives pet owners the ability to provide the veterinary care their pets needs. And many pet insurance companies allow the pet to be treated by any veterinarian their owners choose. There is no approved "network". So you can continue to see your current vet and your pet insurance will help pay for your pet's treatment. In many cases, pet insurance even covers well care visits and vaccinations to help keep your pets healthy.

Irreverent Veterinarian's opinions come from:

Now that we have pretty well covered pet health insurance, there is another area of insurance consideration that is becoming more important, almost by the day.  That would be liability insurance for any injury caused by one of your pets.  Since most of these claims are related to dog bites, it would be appropriate at this time to remind all of you that this coming week, May 15-21, has been proclaimed National Dog Bite Prevention Week by the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the U. S. Postal Service.  Helpful Buckeye will cover this aspect of pet insurance in more detail in next week's issue.


The LA Dodgers are playing as if they are not responsible to anyone, least of all their owner.  They're all just putting in their day at the office.

The NBA playoffs have advanced to the conference finals.  Of the teams remaining, Helpful Buckeye only has any interest in the Dallas Mavericks.  If they can beat Oklahoma City, they would take on the winner of the Chicago/Miami series for the championship.  Also, the owner of the Mavericks, Mark Cuban, has been mentioned as a possible buyer of the Dodgers franchise.  That would be a positive for the Dodgers because he would plan on putting a winning team on the field.


Don't look now, but tomorrow, May 16th, is the 3rd birthday for Questions On Dogs and Cats!  How quickly those 3 years have gone by!  How many years would that be in "dog years?"  Helpful Buckeye has really enjoyed the production of each weekly issue (159 of them) and it looks like I'm ready to sign on for at least another year.  Thanks to all of our readers who have been with us from the beginning and to those who have jumped on along the way.  Many of you have sent e-mails with very interesting and thought-provoking questions...thanks for those contributions!  Remember, you can always contact Helpful Buckeye at:

Helpful Buckeye and Desperado are going out "into the field" this week to do a little research into the vital statistics involved in the first event of Helpful Buckeye's Quadathlon 2011.  Once this information gets configured into my database, I'll be ready to take on that first event.

Helpful Buckeye came across this interesting bit of trivia this week: "What is the only other animal, besides humans, that can contract leprosy?"  I'll give you 2's a mammal and, if you've ever seen one, it was probably dead.  Send your answer to helpful Buckeye at:

Be back here next week for the start of our 4th year....

~~The goal of this blog is to provide general information and advice to help you be a better pet owner and to have a more rewarding relationship with your pet. This blog does not intend to replace the professional one-on-one care your pet receives from a practicing veterinarian. When in doubt about your pet's health, always visit a veterinarian.~~

1 comment:

  1. Pet Insurance is indeed a good thing. Why to hesitate in buying it?