What the plans cover
The higher the maximum payouts, the pricier the premiums. Many pet insurers offer a wellness plan as a rider to a policy that covers injury and illness. Wellness plans cover routine care, such as physical exams, flea-and-tick and heartworm medications, vaccinations, and regular testing. You'll be reimbursed based on a schedule -- say, $20 to $50 for a physical exam.
When you're shopping policies, the first thing to look at is how a company pays out claims. VPI, for example, reimburses according to a set schedule of benefits. That means that for each diagnosis there's a ceiling on the amount you can be reimbursed, and the plan pays 90% of the allowed amount. In return, premiums are fairly inexpensive. (As when you use your own health insurance out of network, you pay the vet directly and submit your bill for reimbursement.) Many of the newer companies pay a percentage of your vet bill, up to 90%.
Be sure you understand the deductibles and maximums. Deductibles can be annual, per visit or per incident (say, if Fluffy gets hit by a car and requires multiple vet visits). Plans may have annual maximums that limit the payout per year, or they may have per-incident maximums that limit how much they'll pay for a specific incident. My insurance for Bailey through VPI, for example, paid a total of $718 for his seizure treatments as they reached various limits for diagnosis and testing. For older pets and pets with higher-risk lifestyles -- cats that live outdoors or dogs that are allowed to roam, for example -- look for policies with higher maximums because it's more likely those pets will have higher expenses.
Preexisting conditions are never covered, says Michael Hemstreet, editor of PetInsuranceReview.com. Hereditary disorders -- -such as hip dysplasia in golden retrievers and kidney disease in Persian cats -- -are generally not covered, either. Some plans are starting to offer coverage for hereditary conditions, but those plans are more expensive. Ask how the insurer handles chronic conditions, such as epilepsy in dogs and asthma in cats. Those issues will likely require numerous vet visits.
If you give accident and illness policies the thumbs down, you can still purchase a wellness plan to cover routine care. "That's the single most important way to save money," says Dr. Louise Murray, vice-president of the ASPCA's Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital. If you're committed to preventive care, you'll likely get back what you paid and sometimes more.
-- Other initial medical includes deworming, basic blood tests and microchip.
-- Aquarium equipment includes basic 20-gallon setup with light/hood, outside filter, undergravel filters, air pump and gravel.
-- Food is premium-brand dry kibble.
-- Recurring medical includes exam, vaccinations, heartworm preventative and topical flea-and-tick preventative.