April 21, 2024

Pet insurance pays for unexpected veterinary bills so you can focus on getting your dog or cat the medical care they need. But pet insurance coverage can vary significantly from one plan to another, so it’s important to understand how your policy works before you buy.

Key terms in this article

Medical problems your pet has before you buy your policy. Pet insurance plans generally won’t pay to treat pre-existing conditions.

The time between when you buy a pet insurance plan and when your coverage starts. Your insurer won’t cover any health issues your pet has during this period.

A type of coverage that pays for routine health expenses such as annual checkups and vaccines. Wellness coverage is typically available as an add-on to an accident and illness plan.

Types of pet insurance coverage

When shopping for pet insurance, you’ll likely see the following three types of plans.

Accident and illness

The most common type of pet insurance plan covers accidents and illnesses. So if your dog is hit by a car or gets a urinary tract infection, his treatment would be covered, up to your plan limit. Below are some of the scenarios that an accident and illness plan could cover.

  • Swallowing a foreign object.

  • Urinary tract infections.

  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea.

Note that accident and illness plans cover only things that go wrong with your pet’s health. They won’t reimburse you for preventive care like annual checkups and vaccinations unless you buy a wellness add-on (more on that below).

Why choose this type of coverage: Accident and illness plans cover the broadest range of problems that your pet could have. They’re also the most customizable and widely available, which means you’ll have plenty of options to find the coverage you need.

Accident-only

Accident-only plans are more limited than accident and illness plans. They’ll pay to treat accidental injuries like the ones listed above but won’t cover expenses due to cancer, infections or other illnesses. They tend to be cheaper than accident and illness plans because they cover so much less.

Not all pet insurers sell accident-only plans.

Why choose this type of coverage: In some cases, accident-only plans may be the only option for pets who are too old at the time of enrollment to qualify for an accident and illness policy. An accident-only plan may also be a good choice if you can’t afford accident and illness coverage but you still want some emergency insurance for your pet.

Wellness

Wellness or preventive care plans are typically sold as add-ons to an accident and illness policy (or, less commonly, an accident-only policy). They generally offer a set list of routine services for which they’ll reimburse you, along with an annual limit for each.

Depending on the plan, those services might include:

  • Heartworm or FeLV/FIV test.

  • Fecal or internal parasite test.

  • Flea, tick and/or heartworm medication.

Why choose this type of coverage: Wellness coverage may save you money if you know you’ll need all or most of the services it covers. Otherwise, you may end up paying more for the coverage than you get back in reimbursements. Do the math before you commit.

What does pet insurance cover?

Pet insurance covers treatment when your furry friend gets hurt or sick. As long as the animal’s condition is covered by your plan, your insurer will generally reimburse you for prescription medicine, surgery, diagnostic tests, hospitalization and emergency care.

But beyond these basics, coverage can vary quite a bit among plans. Your pet insurance may cover:

Alternative and rehabilitative treatment

Some plans cover physical therapy and a wide range of alternative treatments, such as acupuncture and chiropractic care. Others charge more to add this coverage. There’s no standard definition of alternative care, so read the details to find out exactly which treatments your pet is eligible for.

Behavioral therapies

If your vet recommends treatment for issues such as aggression or compulsive behavior, some plans will cover the expense, and some won’t. Others may charge extra for a package that includes this coverage.

Congenital or hereditary conditions

A congenital condition is an abnormality your pet is born with that can lead to later complications. A hereditary condition, such as hip dysplasia or patellar luxation, is passed down to an animal from its parents. Many plans will cover such conditions as long as your pet didn’t show symptoms before you bought the policy. Other plans may limit coverage for these conditions.

Exam fees

Some plans reimburse you for procedures and drugs but don’t cover exam fees when your pet is sick or injured. Others may offer the coverage for an additional charge.

Prescription diets and supplements

If your vet prescribes a certain type of food or supplement to treat your pet’s medical condition, some plans will pay for it. Others won’t, or they will charge extra for the coverage.

Dental care

If you want to keep your furry pal’s chompers in good shape, read your policy’s fine print about dental coverage. You might find, for instance, that your insurer will cover certain issues such as broken teeth or congenital conditions but not dental diseases like gingivitis. Or your carrier may cover dental disease only if your pet has had a recent cleaning under anesthesia.

Pet insurance generally won’t cover routine dental cleanings unless you have a wellness plan.

Final expenses

The end of your pet’s life may bring not only heartbreak but also expenses associated with euthanasia, cremation or burial. Depending on your plan, pet insurance may cover some or all of these costs.

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What does pet insurance not cover?

Most pet insurance plans won’t cover:

Pre-existing conditions

A pre-existing condition is a medical problem that your pet had before you bought the policy or one that cropped up during the waiting period before your coverage began. Almost no pet insurance plan will cover these. However, many policies will cover curable conditions that have been symptom-free for a certain period of time.

🤓Nerdy Tip

A warning: If you decide to increase the coverage limits on your existing policy, some companies will treat this as though you’re buying a whole new plan. That means your waiting periods may start over, and conditions that your policy previously covered will be considered pre-existing going forward.

Cosmetic or elective surgeries

Pet insurance generally won’t pay for procedures such as declawing, tail docking or ear cropping unless they’re deemed medically necessary.

Routine and wellness care

Most accident and illness plans don’t cover the basics like annual vaccinations, spaying, neutering and teeth cleaning unless you’ve paid for a wellness add-on.

Breeding

Expenses associated with breeding or pregnancy are another common exclusion, though you may be able to add a rider to cover these costs.

Waiting periods

After you buy your pet insurance plan, there’s typically a waiting period before coverage begins. The coverage for accidental injuries may begin after just a few days. The waiting period for illness coverage is often longer, such as 14 or 15 days.

There might also be waiting periods of several months to a year for orthopedic problems such as cruciate ligament issues or hip dysplasia.

If your pet needs treatment during these waiting periods, the plan will pay nothing — and any issues that arise will be considered pre-existing conditions going forward.

Coverage limits and deductibles

When you buy a pet insurance plan, you can typically customize certain factors that influence how much you’ll get back in claim payouts. These include coverage limits, deductibles and reimbursement amounts.

Coverage limits

Most plans let you choose an annual coverage limit. This is the most your plan will reimburse you for vet expenses in a given year. It’s often a fixed amount such as $2,500 or $10,000. If you spend more than that amount on vet bills in a given year, you’ll have to cover the excess yourself.

Many companies also offer an unlimited option, though that type of coverage may cost more.

Deductibles

A deductible is the total amount of vet expenses you need to pay before you’re eligible for reimbursement. So if you have a $500 deductible and your dog needs only $200 worth of treatment in a given year, your insurer wouldn’t reimburse you for any of it.

Most companies charge an annual deductible. One exception is Trupanion, which offers per-condition deductibles in many states. If your pet developed a chronic condition like diabetes that required treatment for many years, you’d pay the deductible only once.

Reimbursement amounts

Once you’ve met your deductible, you still might not have 100% coverage for your vet expenses. That’s because most plans also come with a reimbursement percentage — usually 70%, 80% or 90%. Here’s an example of how that could work:

Buddy the dog swallows a sock and needs surgery to remove it. Your pet insurance plan has a $500 annual deductible and a 90% reimbursement rate, and this is your first vet visit of the year. Your bill for the surgery is $1,500. The insurer would subtract your $500 deductible, then pay 90% of the remaining bill, for a total of $900.

If Buddy needed further follow-up treatment within the same policy term, your insurer would cover 90% of your costs because you’d already met your deductible.

What does pet insurance cost?

The average annual cost for a pet insurance policy covering accidents and illness was about $640 for dogs and $387 for cats in 2022, the latest year for which data is available, according to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association

Prices for pet insurance are based on:

  • Your pet’s age and breed. The older your pet is, the more you’ll pay. Some breeds are more expensive to insure than others because they tend to have more health problems.

  • Your ZIP code. If vet costs are high in your area, your pet insurance will likely be more expensive.

  • Amount and type of coverage. The more the policy covers, the more you’ll pay.

  • Reimbursement level and deductible. The lower the reimbursement level and higher the deductible, the less you’ll pay for the plan.

  • Insurance company. Prices vary by company.

How to get pet insurance

Determine the type and amount of coverage you need, and then get pet insurance quotes from several companies. Online quotes are available from just about every major pet insurer, including options to customize your coverage.

🤓Nerdy Tip

Check that the policies have similar reimbursement levels, deductibles and annual payout limits to make sure you’re getting a fair price comparison.

Before you buy, read the fine print to make sure you didn’t miss anything in the restrictions and exclusions. Many pet insurers have sample policies on their websites.

Note that you’re likely buying a policy your pet will have for life. With other types of insurance, shopping around each year for a new policy can save you money. But the older your pet gets, the more pre-existing conditions they’ll likely have — and none of them will be covered if you buy a new pet insurance plan. So do your best to pick a company and a level of coverage that you’ll be happy with long term.

Frequently asked questions