Pet insurance, aka animal health insurance. That wonderful thing we have here in the UK that pays for vet bills. Sometimes.


It’s always about money – pet insurance is no exception

Yep, unfortunately, this is true. There are probably at least 45 different types of insurance companies that offer pet insurance (and I’m only including dog and cat here). How do I know? Because we have at least 45 different types of insurance claim forms in a carousel in the Small Animal Hospital reception.

The pet insurance market is a big big market in the UK. It’s unfortunately also entering a spiralling system where the clients that pay for their policies and don’t claim are becoming insufficient to cover the claims of those that use their insurance policies, much thanks to the high costs of the best treatment available. It leads to all sorts of problems – policies that have exclusions for diseases that are likely going to happen, policies that have insignificant budgets, policies with huge excesses or co-insurance. Despite this, more and more companies are showing up every year to try to get a bit of the market and make some money. It does result in more animals being insured, which, let’s face it, that’s good! Although it also often means that their insurance doesn’t cover everything. And it’s worse possibly for the clients, because many feel completely deceived by the policy they have and sometimes feel that we, as veterinary surgeons, have not done a good job explaining their options… We say that any insurance is better than no insurance, but sometimes for an owner and client that is not perceived that way.


Not all insurance is created equal

Ok, so pet insurance is very tricky and it took me ages to understand it. And how did I know about it? I had to google it because I wanted insurance for the Great Dane puppy I was going to get and for the cat I had just brought over from Portugal. It’s a nightmare. It’s confusing. You don’t know what things mean and what is best. It’s a real pain to figure it all out! But, as a veterinary surgeon, you should know something about it.

Types of policies

There are mainly three types of policy:

  1. Time-limited
  2. Maximum benefit
  3. Lifetime

You can also have accident-only policies. These policies will only cover conditions that are considered accidents, such as treatment after a car accident.

Time-limited policies provide a certain amount of money to be spent per condition over the policy year. Once. Ok, what does this mean? First of all, a “condition” can be anything from an accident to a diagnosed disease, or a hypothetical problem that the vet has been unable to diagnose. It depends on the policy (most cover illness and disease plus accidents). A time-limited policy will provide x money for condition number 1 for the year that it’s active. Anything over the money limit is paid by the owner. The following year condition number 1 is no longer covered by the policy.


Example: Barney is a 4 year-old crossbreed dog that fell down a hill when hiking and broke his radio and ulna. He is insured for 2000 pounds per condition. You fix the leg for 1900 pounds. Yay, Barney’s insurance covers the costs! If it costs 3000 pounds to fix the leg, the insurance will only cover 2000 pounds (the owner must pay for the rest and also pay the excess for the policy). Two weeks after, you diagnose Barney with IRIS stage 2 chronic renal disease. It cost the owner 900 pounds to get the diagnosis after a crisis where Barney needed fluids for 3 days. The insurance covers the full amount of the diagnostic workup and treatment. The following year, Barney’s owner continues his policy. You want to recheck his kidney disease and spend another 200 pounds on blood and urinalysis every three months. Insurance no longer covers anything related to his chronic renal disease as it’s now considered a pre-existing condition


Maximum benefit policies are slightly different, in the way that you still have a certain amount of money to spend but with no time limit. So in Barney’s case, he would be insured for his renal disease up until the owner spends the full 2000 pounds of his insurance. Any costs on top of that must be covered by the owner.


Lifetime cover means that instead of having money per condition, you usually have a certain “pot” of money per year, but you can keep claiming on the same conditions every year. This “pot” of money can be defined per condition or per year, meaning you can have 5000 pounds for all conditions in that year, or you can claim say 1000 pounds per condition up to 5 conditions. This is one of the ways they get you with this one! So, for instance, if poor Barney had a lifetime policy that covers him for 2000 pounds per year for all conditions, when he breaks his leg the owner is left with 100 pounds to spend that year after you fix his leg. That means he won’t have insurance money to pay for the renal disease workup. It does mean, however, that the following year when the owner renews the policy, he gets another 2000 pounds to spend that year, and they can be used for the rechecks you want to do for Barney’s renal disease. If Barney was insured for 1000 pounds per condition up to 5 conditions per year, you could totally do the renal workup, but the insurance would only cover part of the cost of fixing his broken leg.


Lifetime cover is seen as the “premium” cover, because you can keep claiming for the same conditions every new renewal year. However, not all lifetime cover is created equal. As we’ve seen with Barney, sometimes lifetime cover is not enough!


The wording

Insurance companies also make it trickier by using terms that they define, but are pretty much boring for us to find out… Pet insurance is no different when it comes to having lots of words the general public is unfamiliar with.

A condition is the term normally used to describe an illness or disease. Some policies exclude conditions. For instance, some policies will “cover any condition, except conditions related to tooth and gum disease”. This is actually fairly common and is a big nuisance for us vets. Why? Because the insurance company will try to argue with you that the dog you want to remove half of the jaw because he has cancer is not covered because the condition is “related to gum disease”. On the other hand, virtually every policy will exclude “pre-existing conditions”, that is, any problem that has already been diagnosed. It makes sense, but it means that if your client changed insurance companies and Barney was already diagnosed with chronic renal disease with the previous insurer, the new one will cover nothing related to renal disease.

The excess, like with any other insurance, is the amount of money that the policyholder needs to pay when they claim. Many companies will have one excess per claim, and not one excess per condition, which is annoying. It also means that every year the client needs to pay an excess, even if their pet is insured with lifetime cover, if they keep claiming for the same condition. This can vary from something like 50 pounds to, sometimes 150 pounds. It means that if it costs less than the excess to treat, there is no point in claiming.

Some policies also have a co-insurance. Co-insurance is a percentage of the fees that the policyholder needs to pay after the excess has been paid for. So, for instance, if there is a 10% co-insurance on Barney’s bills, the owner needs to pay 10% of that. So he would be paying 90 extra pounds plus the excess when he claimed for Barney’s renal disease.


How they get you

Or your clients… There are several ways pet insurance companies try to keep the ball on their side of the camp. Of course not all of them do these things, but, like I said, it’s a business and insurance companies need to make money in order to pay claims. How?

  • Their “cheap” covers don’t offer any significant financial cover (for instance, they only offer £500 per accident or condition)
  • They don’t cover certain conditions (normally expensive conditions, like dental treatment)
  • They have huge excesses or co-insurance
  • They increase the yearly premium if the client claims


Most of the times, however, the client just happens to choose a policy without being fully informed and ends up with a poor choice.


How much money should a client get in their policy?

This is tricky. I personally advise clients to get lifetime cover when their animals are young and suggest they compare prices. I also always tell them that some insurance companies don’t show up on those websites and they might very well be the best option! How much money though? Well. It depends. Depends on how much money the client can spend on insurance and how lucky/unlucky their pets are. It’s probably better to tell them the cost of things rather than suggest they get x amount of cover. So, for instance, they should be aware that a non-complicated fracture could be fixed for 1500 pounds, but a complicated one might take 4000 pounds. An MRI for neurological disease can cost a thousand. A pyometra might cost 700. So it depends on how much peace of mind the owner wants. However, getting a low budget lifetime cover can be more useless than a good budget maximum benefit…


But it’s good!

Yes, despite everything and the confusion that insurance creates, it is a lifesaver – literally! – for many animals. It allows us to treat them when they would have to be euthanised otherwise (sorry, peeps, we vets can’t work just out of charity if we are not actually working in a charity). It allows us to practice good medicine and diagnose diseases that we would otherwise be “guessing”. Despite many clients ending up disappointed, others are extremely grateful. One of the clients I used to see said that she was going to cancel her kitten’s insurance and put money on the side two days before her cat breaking the leg. It cost her 3000 pounds to fix that leg and luckily the kitten was insured. And, by the way, this 1 year old cat has managed to break the tail, a leg and a hip. And all at different times.

It is definitely a step forward when it comes to veterinary care, especially when there is a high degree of cover throughout the entire dog and cat owner population.