Do I really need to insure my pet?

In an ideal world, we would all have a sizable pot of money tucked away to pay for veterinary care, in case our beloved pets suffer illness or injury. In its absence, having pet insurance can bring peace of mind and offer more advanced or specialist treatment without worrying about the cost – but policies vary hugely and the devil is in the detail. Read our guide to help you make an informed choice.

Our top tip:

It’s worth doing your homework carefully before you take out a policy – make yourself a brew, sit down and read on!

The pros and cons of pet insurance:

  • Pros:

• In the event of accident or illness you do not have to worry about the cost but only about your pet’s wellbeing
• You may have the option of better / safer, more expensive treatment
• You avoid the stress of going into debt or borrowing from friends or family
• If you have cover for ongoing conditions, you are protected from continuing medical costs which can add up alarmingly over time (depending on the terms and conditions of the policy and providing the condition was not pre-existing before the policy began)

  • Cons:

• You pay a monthly (or annual) cost for a policy you may never need
• Policy costs are higher for pedigrees and older pets, both considered to be at a higher risk of illness
• The excess or premium may increase with the age of your pet and often go up at renewal if you have claimed on the policy
• Exclusions on the policy may limit your cover for specific conditions or recurrence of a previous problem.

What animals does pet insurance cover?

Pet insurance policies can be found for all manner of creatures great and small:

• Dogs
• Cats
• Rabbits
• Horses
• Birds and exotics, such as lizards, tortoises and snakes

What things does pet insurance cover?

It is possible to find insurance cover for:

• Vet fees – as a result of accident, injury or illness
• Complementary therapies – such as acupuncture or hydrotherapy
• Behavioural conditions – such as separation anxiety or noise phobias
• Dental treatment – though often with restrictions
• Emergency boarding fees – in the event of owner/family accident or illness
• Holiday cancellation – cancelling your holiday if your pet is seriously ill
• Finding your pet if they go missing – such as advertising costs
• Public liability and third-party cover – in the event of your dog causing injury or damage
• The purchase cost of your pet – in the event of their death, or if lost or stolen

What isn’t covered by pet insurance?

Here is where the minefield lies. There are great policies and there are the right policies for you. It’s essential that you read the small print to avoid heart-breaking situations:

• where you find your pet suffering from an illness or injury that is not covered by your insurance and you don’t have funds for the care you want
• when you authorise extensive care in the belief that you have cover, only to find later that a clause in your policy means you do not

  • Conditions often not covered by pet insurance include:

• Costs during the waiting period – most policies don’t cover illness in the first 14 days of the policy; some will cover accidents or injuries.

• Costs up to the excess – the amount of money you must pay per condition (or per condition per year) before the insurance kicks in. There may be a fixed excess and also a percentage excess that you must pay.

• “Routine” costs – such as vaccinations, neutering, nail clipping and routine dental work

• Pre-existing conditions – any condition (or signs of a condition) that you or your vet noticed (so is on your pet’s records) before the policy was taken out. Do note that you might have an exclusion for “vomiting and diarrhoea” from any cause if your pet previously had an episode that wasn’t diagnosed as something more specific

• Specific conditions – some policies exclude conditions that occur commonly in certain breeds, e.g., hip dysplasia

• Pregnancy and birth – most will not cover illness or injury as a result of pregnancy or giving birth

• Treatment for behavioural conditions – including referral to a specialist

• Specialist diets – e.g., for allergies or kidney disease

• Costs beyond the policy’s financial limit – a limit applied to each separate condition or to all conditions together

• Costs beyond the policy’s time restrictions – cover limited to a period from the first claim, first treatment or even from the first time signs were noticed.

• Conditions not notified in time – you may be required to notify or claim within, say, 6 months of the onset of a condition, even if your spend is initially below the excess

What is meant by “policy limit”?

The policy limit is essentially how much money is available for you to claim for over a given period – in short, how much money is in your pot for you to spend on veterinary care for your pet.
Some policies offer an overall limit for vets’ fees, while others offer a limit per condition, with or without an overall total limit (e.g., £2000 per condition with a total cover of £6000). Sometimes these limits are per year and each year the cover renews; sometimes they are simply per lifetime. It matters so much that you know what you have that we make no apologies for explaining this twice over!

What types of pet insurance policies are there?

Policies vary greatly, from the basic cover of a 3rd party and accident-only policy to the premium cover provided by a lifetime policy. Let’s look in more detail:

  • Accident only

You are covered for accidents (up to your policy limit) but not for illness. Helpful in the event of an injury, such as a road traffic accident or a broken leg, but be aware: long-term illnesses can add up to just as much or more over time.

  • Time limited

You can claim for a condition (up to your policy limit) for a specific period of time, usually 12 months. You can no longer claim for a condition once the policy ends or if you reach your policy limit during this period.

When you renew your policy, anything you have claimed for in the previous insurance period becomes “pre-existing” and will not be covered by the new policy.

You have a pot of money for the length of the policy only, whether you use it or not.

  • Maximum benefit

A maximum benefits policy continues to pay for ongoing conditions as long the insurance policy is renewed (continuously and without gaps) and until you reach your policy cover limit per condition.

You have a pot of money that has no time limit to the spend, but once spent it is not replenished.

  • Lifetime

You can claim up to the policy maximum per condition, per year and if your policy is renewed without a break, the cover limit is refreshed every year. However, if you reach your policy limit for a condition within the cover period, you will have to cover the costs until your policy starts afresh and the “money pot” is refilled.

You have a pot of money for each condition which is refilled each year at policy renewal.

How much pet insurance cover do I need?

Policy cover can vary hugely – with the amount you can claim varying from £1000 to over £10,000 per condition/per year. Unsurprisingly, the larger your policy limit, the larger the premium you pay.  

How much you need depends partly on whether you would want specialist/referral treatment in the event of serious illness or injury. If you want to have all options open to you, policies at the lower end of the spectrum are unlikely to cover all of your potential veterinary costs.

Pet insurance renewals – what to watch out for

When your policy comes round for renewal, many companies will increase your premium if you have made a claim – and you may find that conditions you have claimed for have now been excluded.

Premiums tend to increase year-on-year anyway, in line with the ever-more-sophisticated veterinary care available. And cost rise as your pet gets older since they are more likely with age to require treatment. Some policies automatically remove areas of cover as your pet ages or require you to pay a percentage of the claim alongside your excess.

It can be tempting to shop around for a lower price at this point but do bear in mind that anything you have claimed for previously will be “pre-existing” on a new policy and won’t be covered. For ongoing medical conditions, this can pose a huge problem.

What alternatives to pet insurance are there?

One option is to set aside a specific amount of money each month to build up a “emergency fund”. It is important to be realistic about how much money you can save and what it could fund. Referral to a specialist for surgery can easily end up in excess of £8,000 and an ongoing medical condition can cost over £100 monthly.

In the early days of saving, your fund may be small, and you may then have to find the money elsewhere to cover the costs in the event of a serious illness or injury.

Pet insurance: what are direct claims?

It is important to remember that your insurance policy is a contract between you and your insurance company – not your insurance company and your vet.

In most cases, you would need to settle the bill from your vets in full and then claim this money back from your insurance company. In some cases, your vet may allow a “direct claim” – where the money is paid directly to the practice to settle the bill – but this is at the discretion of your practice, and you will still have to pay the excess (and possibly a deposit) in advance.

Questions to ask when shopping for pet insurance:

In summary, some of the key questions to ask when choosing a policy:

• What type of policy do I want?
• What is not covered by the policy?
• Have any exclusions been applied?
• How much is the fixed excess?
• Do I also have to pay a proportion of the costs?
• What are the policy limits, of time and money?