Insurance can be good option for pets and pocketbooks

FARGO - Stitches and a veterinary visit to fix 9-month-old Kimber's cut tongue cost $700. "Once we saw that bill, we thought, 'OK, we need insurance,' " says Kerri Johnson, who owns Kimber, a lab-Akita mix. Kerri and her husband, Chad Johnson, ad...

Kerri and Chad Johnson play with their dog, Kimber
Kerri and Chad Johnson play with their dog, Kimber, at their home in West Fargo. David Samson / The Forum

FARGO - Stitches and a veterinary visit to fix 9-month-old Kimber's cut tongue cost $700.

"Once we saw that bill, we thought, 'OK, we need insurance,' " says Kerri Johnson, who owns Kimber, a lab-Akita mix.

Kerri and her husband, Chad Johnson, adopted Kimber after Kerri saw her at the pound. An animal rescue organization cared for the puppy until the adoption was final, and during that time, Kimber's cut tongue needed attention.

While the animal rescue took care of the bill from Kimber's stitches, seeing those high numbers prompted the Johnsons to start researching pet health insurance providers. They went back and forth about getting the insurance and decided it was a positive choice for Kimber and their pocketbooks.

Their overall reason for the insurance, besides protecting themselves from unpredictable costs, was knowing that they'd never have to hesitate to get Kimber proper medical care.


"It's nice knowing that we can walk into the vet and say, 'Yes, we can do this because it's affordable to us now,' " Kerri says. "She's our baby."

Tim and Karly Malone of West Fargo purchased pet health insurance for their two 9-month-old German shorthair pointers for the same reason.

"They're like our kids, and if anything happened to them, it would be devastating. They are our family," Karly says.

The Malones also wanted insurance because their two dogs - Gauge and Mayble - will be hunting dogs. The breeder warned the couple of common field accidents and encouraged them to get insurance.

"It takes out the inherent risk, especially with hunting dogs," Tim says.

Dr. Carrie Summerfield of the West Fargo Animal Hospital says pet health insurance can help people get the best care for their pet without worrying about financial strain. Unpredictable health issues like cancer or surgeries for injuries can be expensive for pet owners.

For instance, orthopedic issues are one of the most expensive things to fix in dogs, she says. The surgeries can cost $2,500 to $2,600.

"That's when the insurance pays for itself," Summerfield says.


While expensive, pre-insurance animal veterinarian bills rarely escalate to the high amounts that human health care bills do, she says.

The cost to insure an animal starts at $10 a month, according to VPI Pet Insurance's website. The Malones insure their two dogs through the company and pay $36 a month. The insurance covers mostly emergency situations, Tim says.

The price of insurance increases depending on the animal type, amount of coverage desired and other add-ons.

The Johnsons pay about $40 per month to insure Kimber through PurinaCare Pet Health Insurance. Her plan covers vet visits, shots, medications and more since it's a combined plan that covers wellness and accidents. Like human health insurance, there's a deductible with Kimber's insurance, and once it's met, the insurance company pays 80 percent of the costs and the Johnsons pay the remainder.

Kimber has had a urinary tract infection and respiratory infection since the Johnsons adopted her, and insurance has helped them pay for the medications and vet visits.

"It's still kind of expensive to me, but now that we're seeing some of the kickbacks on it, it's totally worth it," Kerri says.

Both couples pay the veterinarian costs upfront and are reimbursed by their insurance providers within two weeks.

Curtis Steinhoff, director of corporate communications at VPI, says pet health insurance is not a new concept, but it's becoming more popular in the U.S. due to the increased cost of veterinary services and the change in pet owners' bonds with their animals.


"Dogs have gone from sleeping outside on a porch to being inside, sleeping in the bedroom with their owners," he says. "Many people, like me, feel that our pets are part of the family, and we want to be able to protect that family member's health."

Statistics from market research indicate continued growth of people buying pet health insurance, but while it's a growing trend, still not many pets are insured. Steinhoff, who has two long-haired Chihuahuas, says only about 1 percent to 3 percent of all pets have health insurance.

Pet health insurance is more popular in Europe and has been for many years, he says, noting that about 25 percent of people in the U.K. have the insurance.

Pet health insurance typically covers companion animals like dogs and cats, although VPI's insurance covers animals like hedgehogs, honeygliders and birds.

Veterinarian Summerfield says she's seen a small increase locally in the number of people getting health insurance for their pets but not nearly the numbers she'd like to see. Vets at the West Fargo Animal Hospital try to bring up the idea with their clients, she says.

"I think pet insurance is a very good idea," Summerfield says. "Some people are definitely willing to spend a lot more on their animals than others. We have to deal with finances all the time -- it's not like in the human world where a majority of people have it."

Without insurance, she says, some people forego diagnostic tests for their pet and instead choose to treat the pet based on the information they do know and hope for the best.

She sees most people purchasing insurance to protect against accidents and unforeseeable surgeries more so than routine wellness visits.

When considering pet health insurance, Summerfield says the most important thing is to know what you're getting.

"You've got to be smart about buying your insurance and know what you expect to get back out of it," Summerfield says.

The Malones chose VPI since Tim got a discount on the insurance through his job. They studied the policy before purchasing it to ensure that they knew what was covered.

The Johnsons chose PurinaCare since it incorporated the wellness coverage and accidental coverage they wanted. Kerri says they might switch to just accidental coverage in the future once Kimber is done with a majority of her puppy-specific veterinary visits.

While happy with her choice to insure Kimber, Kerri says she sees why some people might be skeptical of getting pet health insurance.

"I can definitely see where some people might think it's ridiculous, but it's worth it when you see some of the bills you're getting. Health care for dogs is almost as bad as healthcare for us," she says.

VPI's Steinhoff says "getting their money's worth" is often a concern of people considering pet health insurance.

He answers that question by stating that he hopes they don't get their money back because it means their pet was never sick or injured.

"It's like being upset you didn't get your homeowners insurance money back because your house didn't burn down," Steinhoff says. "You get it to know that it's there to protect and for that peace of mind."

Tips to avoid extra veterinary visits and keep pets healthy

It's inevitable that accidents will happen, but with a few simple tips, pet owners can avoid extra trips to the vet's office.

Dr. Carrie Summerfield of the West Fargo Animal Hospital shares her top tips for healthier pets.

• Get annual checkups.

"That way, we can pick up on problems sooner rather than later," Summerfield says.

• Vaccinate pets when they're young to avoid certain illnesses.

• Watch their weight.

"A lot of diseases can be exacerbated in overweight pets," she says. "We see a lot of overweight pets these days."

• Keep your pet in a safe environment.

Animals shouldn't be around potentially harmful foods or objects they could eat, Summerfield says.

According to a list compiled by Real Simple magazine, chocolate and macadamia nuts are dangerous to dogs, and grapes, raisins, garlic, onions, sugarless gum, alcoholic beverages and bread dough are dangerous for cats and dogs. Avocados are dangerous to birds.

• Keep pets on a leash outdoors.

Keeping pets on leashes or in a safe, fenced yard is crucial to avoiding injury by cars, Summerfield says.

Kerri and Chad Johnson play with their dog
Kerri and Chad Johnson play with their dog, Kimber, at their home in West Fargo. David Samson / The Forum

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