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Pets and practicality: More owners opt to insure Fluffy, Fido

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(Jenny Kane – jkane@shawmedia.com)
Dr. Cari Setzler, of Animal Hospital of McHenry, holds Apache, 16, an Ocicat on Friday. Setzler has been a veterinarian for seven years and Apache has been a clinic cat for nine years. The animal hospital adopted Apache after his owners could no-longer afford to care for him. Setzler urges pet owners to consider getting pet insurance before something major occurs.

Dr. Cari Setzler, a veterinarian with Animal Hospital of McHenry, recalled a client who had particularly bad luck when it came to the health of her three dogs.

One dog needed its spleen removed, another had a fungal infection, and a third had a hole in its diaphragm.

The health problems were flukes, not breed-specific or particularly common, but all led to significant veterinary bills.

Altogether, treatments cost in the neighborhood of $30,000, but with pet insurance, they paid about $1,000, Setzler said.

“These were major things,” she said. “Pet insurance made it happen.”

That example is a more extreme circumstance that made pet insurance clearly worthwhile, but Setzler still encourages her clients to consider buying it.

“We do recommend it, and we recommend it at a young age,” Setzler said.

According to the American Pet Products Association, pet owners spent more than $13 billion on veterinary care in 2010, which is expected to top $14 billion this year.

Pet insurance is included in that figure and is identified by the organization as a huge area of potential growth.

“With improved policies that include more conditions, even at increased premiums, pet insurance will become more attractive for pet owners and more lucrative for insurance carriers and veterinary hospitals,” according to the APPA.

Insurance plans can range in price, sometimes less than $15 a month, depending on the coverage level. Often, the cheapest plans cover only injuries and treatment related to an accident, while more expensive plans cover things such as annual exams, dental cleaning and standard vaccines.

Ongoing or pre-existing conditions often are covered only through add-ons to the insurance plan.

Pet insurance may not be a way to save money in the long run because it spreads the payments out over the life of the pet, but it does help with unexpected medical expenses.

“In the lifetime, you probably won’t save money, but you’ll be prepared when something happens,” Setzler said. “For the more routine cases, it allows you to budget ahead of time.”

The American Veterinary Medical Association also endorses pet insurance but not any specific providers.

“Anything that might assist pet owners in providing the best care that they possibly can for their pet is certainly a good thing,” spokesman David Kirkpatrick said.

There are some aspects that the organization believes are part of a good pet insurance program, Kirkpatrick said, such as protecting the veterinarian-client relationship.

“The veterinarian and the pet owner get to decide what type of treatment and what types of care are needed,” he said. “We also believe that pet insurance should allow for animal owners the freedom to select a veterinarian.”

While there are many similarities between pet insurance and people insurance, such as the same terminology for things such as premiums and deductibles, there are some differences.

“The vast majority, if not all pet insurance plans, call for pet owners to pay for services upfront and then the pet owner is reimbursed,” Kirkpatrick said.

Both Kirkpatrick and Setzler, the veterinarian, also warn of breed exclusions.

Ross Oliver, practice manager for Animal Emergency of McHenry County, said that roughly 25 percent of the emergency and critical care center’s clients have insurance for their pets.

“We definitely have been seeing much more of it,” he said. “The majority of clients that I’ve spoken with seem very happy with it. I do feel that pet insurance is very much becoming more used in the veterinary industry.”

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