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Do your research before buying pet insurance, experts say

Ottawa graduate student Daniel Boutin adopted Samwell the cat in 2019, hoping the formerly feral rescue animal could keep him company as he studied. Samwell adapted well to his new life. But there were a few surprises.
A Bernese Mountain Dog sits on a Toronto front porch Saturday, July 6, 2019. Experts say if you do your research, pet insurance could save you thousands of dollars. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy

Ottawa graduate student Daniel Boutin adopted Samwell the cat in 2019, hoping the formerly feral rescue animal could keep him company as he studied. 

Samwell adapted well to his new life. But there were a few surprises.

In 2020, Boutin found out his new companion had a gum infection and needed some teeth removed. Then, Samwell was diagnosed with FIV, an immunodeficiency disease that likely caused the gum infection. Soon after, the cat underwent a second surgery to remove the rest of his teeth.

Boutin had pet insurance, but neither surgery was covered by his policy, instead costing him thousands of dollars.

“There's a whole page dedicated to what they don't cover in my insurance,” he says. “And that's fault on me for not reading the fine print.”

Boutin is now worried that future illnesses might not be covered if they’re linked to his cat’s FIV. 

“The answer I got from my vet was essentially, it's a case by case basis. So I wouldn't know until Sam started to have some sort of health issue.”

Boutin is part of a relatively small club: Canadian pet owners who have pet insurance. According to the Canadian Animal Health Institute (CAHI), in 2020 only 2.74 per cent of almost 16 million pet cats and dogs in Canada were insured. 

Many pet owners are hesitant about insurance, and for good reason: there are so many companies offering widely varying policies. Experts say you need to do your research on both your policy and your new pet’s medical records, especially for older rescue animals, or you might be on the hook for thousands of dollars in unexpected vet bills. 

One thing that may come as a surprise is that most pet insurance policies don’t cover expected costs, such as regular vaccines or preventative treatments, explains Margi Tooth, president at pet insurer Trupanion. Insurance is for unexpected costs, like illnesses or accidents, she says, though some vet clinics and some insurers offer “wellness” coverage for annual expenses.

Every policy varies in what it covers and how much it costs, she says: “It’s all in the details.”

For example, some policies have higher deductibles than others. Many don’t cover pre-existing conditions, and some don’t cover conditions that certain breeds are prone to developing. Many get more expensive as your pet ages, and some have add-ons for end-of-life care. 

The best time to get insurance is when your pet is a puppy or kitten, says Tooth. But if you’re rescuing an animal, you can ask your vet to do a comprehensive checkup and look for any pre-existing conditions before making an informed decision. 

Tracey Bissett, president of Bissett Financial Fitness, says insurance has been indispensable for her six-year-old golden retriever’s string of illnesses and injuries. Bissett estimates her insurer has paid out around $15,000 in claims, a good deal for the approximately $65 she pays monthly. 

Bissett says whether you’re getting insurance or not, you need to budget for the extra cost of a new pet. There are many potential expenses that insurance won’t cover, she says, such as training, dog sitting, and damage to your home. 

People are generally resistant to insurance, as they feel it’s not worth it unless they have had a claim paid out, says Jessica Moorhouse, a money expert and host of the More Money Podcast. That is likely why it is still uncommon for pet parents to sign up, she says.

That’s why you should shop around, understand your options and read the fine print, says Moorhouse.

People often say they will just set aside money instead, but Moorhouse and Bissett say most won’t actually stick to that -- so be honest with yourself before deciding to take that road. Besides, your furry friend could get in an accident or fall ill before you’ve had the chance to save up enough to cover the bill. 

Elke Rubach, president of Rubach Wealth, cautions that if your pet is unlucky enough to go to the vet often, you might run through the maximum amount covered by insurance.

That’s what happened to one of her dogs, a Westie, which the insurer refused to continue covering after paying out around $10,000 on a $13,000 surgery.

But Rubach still feels she got her money’s worth, and has insurance for her other dogs, a pair of Pomeranians. She says people often don’t trust insurance, but the right policy can make a big difference. 

“Everybody hates buying insurance, but everybody loves what insurance does for you.”

In the end, Boutin decided to keep paying into his insurance for the now-toothless Samwell, even though he’s learned the hard way it won’t cover everything.

His advice to other pet owners, especially those adopting older animals, is to learn everything they can about their new furry friend so they can make an informed decision about pet insurance -- and don’t forget to read the fine print.

“I don't regret it at all,” says Boutin of adopting Samwell. 

“While medical costs can be incredibly frustrating ... I love him more than anything, so I'm more than glad to pay.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 19, 2022.

Rosa Saba, The Canadian Press

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