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Benefits and myths around pet insurance explained

Keeping our companion animals healthy and free from pain and discomfort is our responsibility as owners, and one we must take seriously. This involves providing them with preventative health care and seeking medical treatment in a timely manner when they become sick, are injured or have some mishap that could affect their health.

Veterinarians are there to offer all these services, but veterinary care can often be expensive; there are many overhead costs involved such as the costs your veterinarian must pay to the laboratory for your pet’s blood and pathology tests and the expensive equipment your veterinarian needs to investigate your pet’s problem (x-ray and ultrasound machines, for example). In addition, some conditions may require advanced diagnostics (such as an MRI or CT scan) or care from a specialist veterinarian or hospital.

Sadly, these costs can be a barrier to treatment for many pet owners. This is why pet insurance can help provide owners with the peace of mind that they can afford the best treatment for their pets if they suffer from a serious or complex condition or even during emergencies. Please note most pet insurance policies will have a list of what constitutes a specified accidental injury and a pre-existing condition. You need to make sure you check your Policy Booklet to fully understand what you will and won’t be covered for.

An Australian survey of pet owners in 2019 estimated that 30% of dog owners and 21% of cat owners had taken out pet insurance. Pet insurance is still a relatively new product in Australia, where the uptake is lower than in other markets such as the United Kingdom and the United States. There are several common myths about pet insurance that may deter many owners from taking out cover, so today we’re addressing these to help you make an informed decision about what is best for you and your pet.

Common negative myths about pet insurance

Almost 50% of dog and cat owners who were asked the reason for not taking out pet insurance in the last 12 months reported they could not see the value in pet insurance and 44% believed pet insurance is too expensive. Of interest, around 1 in 5 owners had not given pet insurance much thought and knew very little about it.

Myth: Pet insurance is a waste of money

It’s quite common for owners to express the view that insurance premiums are a waste of money if they have no need to make a claim. This reflects a misunderstanding of the primary purpose of insurance, which is to provide cover for the unexpected. In the case of pets, this means events you hope will never occur, such as an accident or illness. Not only are these distressing, but they may set you back by thousands of dollars in veterinary costs.

Pet insurance provides a safety net that can help to ensure you can provide your pet with the care they need and claim back on the costs of your pet’s treatment and reduce your out-of-pocket expenses. For example, the veterinary fees for a pet who has swallowed a foreign object could cost up to $13,000. Also, there are different levels of pet insurance, so you can choose what’s best for your circumstances. One policy might cover a specific condition, and another may not, so it’s important to understand what exclusions exist in your policy.

Myth: Pet insurance is too expensive

Any form of insurance requires a regular payment of ongoing premiums, usually on a monthly basis, and for some people this is seen as “just not affordable”. However, due to the variety of products and policies available, pet owners have a great deal of choice when selecting a pet insurance policy.

After food, veterinary care is the greatest expense involved in caring for companion animals, with an average annual cost of $546 for dogs and $371 for cats who have visited the vet. These figures are only averages based on standard vet visits, so it’s impossible to predict how much your pet will cost you in veterinary fees, as this depends on many factors such as their age, breed and lifestyle, as well as what it is they’re being treated for.

While the annual cost of pet insurance premiums may end up being higher or lower than your annual veterinary bills. Pet insurance can be a safety net to help ensure your much loved pet can be treated without you having to go through financial stress or make treatment decisions based on cost.

A 2019 estimate of the annual expenditure on each animal (excluding pet insurance) in Australian households was $1,480 for dogs and $893 for cats.

If you’re considering pet insurance, do your research to find the most affordable policy that meets your pet’s needs. The types of cover available include basic cover for accidents only, standard cover for accidents and illnesses, and comprehensive cover that can include some preventative care (including limited cover for dental procedures) and routine veterinary checks. Be careful to note that like all types of insurance, every pet insurance policy has exclusions. These include pre-existing conditions, which existed or occurred prior to the commencement date of your first policy period or within your waiting period. If you or your vet were aware of the condition, then it may be considered a pre-existing condition and excluded from cover.

In some policies, illnesses that can be prevented through vaccination, irrespective of whether your dog was vaccinated (such as parvovirus), elective and non-essential procedures (such as allergy testing), routine care (such as food, grooming and usually vaccinations), pregnancy and behavioural problems may not be covered by pet insurance. You will need to ask about whether your insurer will cover the cost of desexing or dental care. Check your Policy Booklet or call up your insurer and speak to someone who can help you understand the fine print.

There are also limits on the amount of cover for some conditions. Some may only be covered once in a pet’s lifetime or have annual limits, so, make sure you read the relevant Policy Booklet and fully understand what will be covered before signing up. This is where it’s important to speak with your veterinarian who can advise about any potential problems your pet may be likely to develop, such as hip dysplasia, because you may wish to consider this when choosing your level of cover.

Also note that generally premiums may increase as your pet ages and may also be higher for breeds considered as ‘high risk’ for particular health problems. Brachycephalic (or ‘short-nosed’) dogs such as the British Bulldog, French Bulldog and Pug are examples of this due to their increased rates of breathing problems, skin complaints and heart disease. While Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (or BOAS) is generally covered where clinically indicated, many vets will recommend that brachycephalic breeds who do not yet show symptoms of BOAS have the corrective surgery early on. There has been an increase in insurance claims for surgery to relieve the obstructive airway syndrome these dogs experience.

Myth: My pet will never need insurance

Many people assume they will never need pet insurance, whether this is because their pet is young and healthy, or very well behaved and kept securely contained at home and when going out. These may be true however the unexpected can occur.

Firstly, life is unpredictable, and despite taking the best care of our pets, sometimes they do have accidents or fall ill for reasons beyond our control, and the resulting vet bills can be expensive. The cost of treatment for a dog who has swallowed an item such as a sock or skewed bone has been known to reach almost $15,000. Luckily, some pet insurance policies will provide cover for an episode of an ingested foreign body, however some policies may not, so do your research properly before signing up to a pet insurance policy.

Secondly, waiting until a pet is older before you take out pet insurance could mean more opportunity for them to develop conditions that will not be covered as they would be considered to be a pre-existing condition. Considering pet insurance early such as at the first veterinary visit or at the time of adoption, can help to ensure they have lifetime cover for any new issues such as allergies that may develop and need ongoing treatment. If you’re thinking of taking out RSPCA Pet Insurance, there are some age limits you need to be aware of. A range of policies can be taken out from the time your dog or cat is 8 weeks old and before their ninth birthday, and for pets over 9 years (but before they reach 16), the cover you can take out has annual condition limits and reimburses a maximum of 60% of approved veterinary bills. The great news is once you take out cover, they’ll be covered for life, as long as you continue to pay their premiums.

Myth: There are too many exclusions, insurance won’t cover what I need

Like most insurance policies, pet insurance does have certain exclusions that exist. However, if you read the relevant Policy Booklet, you may find that you are covered for more than you think. For example, even if your pet is a breed that is considered high risk for certain inherited diseases, they may be able to still be insured and be covered for these conditions providing they have not already developed symptoms. Pets with pre-existing conditions may also be able to be insured for other illnesses and for accident cover. And while it can be more difficult to insure older pets, there are policies available for them up until a certain age (this varies according to the insurer) but it’s important to realise that their premiums may start higher. The key message here is to seek the advice of your veterinarian about your pet’s health needs and to read through the product disclosure statement of any pet insurance policy you are considering.

The benefits of pet insurance

Pet insurance can help contribute to optimal health and welfare for your cat or dog by ensuring you can give them the best possible care. It’s important that owners completely understand the terms and conditions of the policy they take out, including what diagnostic tests and treatments they are covered for and any exclusions that exist.

Benefit: Pet insurance covers a portion of veterinary bills

Depending on the level of cover, pet insurance can cover eligible veterinary costs up to 80% or more, and owners can potentially claim thousands of dollars annually. This can help make veterinary treatment affordable for those of us who would never have access to hundreds or thousands of dollars in an emergency. Some policies cover the agreed eligible vet bill through reimbursement and some veterinarians can lodge the claim on the insureds behalf and only charge the ‘gap’ fee if this is a feature of the policy.

Benefit: Pet insurance could support the best treatment options for pets

One of the most heartbreaking situations for both veterinarians and pet owners is when the most comprehensive treatment for a pet is not possible due to the owner’s financial constraints. In recent years there have been significant advancements in veterinary care that have been made accessible to more owners. With some policy covers, treatment decisions could be based on veterinary advice about what is best for the pet’s health, including complex procedures and emergency treatments rather than on the cost. This may include referral to a specialist or emergency hospital, advanced diagnostics such as CT scans or MRIs or access to a specialist when required, such as for orthopaedic surgery or oncology.

Benefit: Pet insurance can encourage preventative care

Although pet insurance is designed to cover the expenses of specified illnesses and injuries, in some cases it can encourage preventative care. Owners can take out comprehensive cover that includes options such as parasite control and some cover for dental. However, some policies will not cover you for any dental treatment, including fractured teeth, so it’s important to familiarise yourself with the relevant Policy Booklet before purchasing a policy.

Benefit: Pet insurance could support treatment for chronic conditions

Unfortunately, like us, our pets can develop chronic conditions that need ongoing management throughout their lives. Examples include skin problems, allergies, gastrointestinal issues, arthritis, diabetes and tumours - to name a few. The ongoing costs of assessing and treating these conditions, including the cost of medication alone, can become overwhelming. Arthritis can be a common problem in pets which can begin in middle age. This usually requires a combination of medication, supplements, dietary management, injections, imaging and regular veterinary visits to keep your pet comfortable and free from pain. Providing you had taken out pet insurance before such conditions developed, you may be able to claim for some of the cost of ongoing assessment, treatment and monitoring.

Benefit: Pet insurance could help prevent unnecessary euthanasia

No owner should ever be placed in the position where they need to make the difficult decision to have their pet euthanised because they cannot afford essential veterinary treatment. This is a very real risk during emergencies such as car accidents, tick paralysis, intestinal or urinary blockages and numerous other situations where waiting to treat is not an option.

Veterinarians and owners can also be confronted by this situation when a pet is becoming unwell from a newly diagnosed condition such as cancer, which could otherwise be treatable. And whilst some policies will not cover you for flea, tick or worm preventative treatments having pet insurance with the appropriate cover could help prevent a pet from having to be euthanised due to the cost, when treatment options are available.

Benefit: Pet insurance helps toward treatment to overcome common health issues with pets

Apart from emergencies, there are many common health issues our pets may develop, and pet insurance could help provide us with the assurance that we can afford the initial consultation, required follow-up appointments and any diagnostic tests and medications. Based on insurance data, we know the most common reasons for visits to the vet are ear infections for dogs and wounds for cats - both examples illustrate the comprehensive and ongoing care required for successful treatment that could be covered under a pet insurance policy.

Ear infections in dogs are itchy and painful, and may be caused by anything from allergies, foreign bodies such as grass seeds, ear mites, bacterial or yeast organisms or even excessive cleaning of the ear canal. Treatment may include ear drops, ear cleaning and medications for pain, and typically lasts for 10 to 30 days with follow up appointments. Most ear infections in dogs will resolve, but in some cases underlying conditions such as allergies will require ongoing management.

Cat wounds can be caused by motor vehicles, bumps from hard objects, falls, animal attacks or fighting with other cats, and are one of the major risks for cats who live outdoors (this is also why the RSPCA recommends you keep your cat safe and happy at home). These wounds may be minor, requiring examination under sedation, cleaning, debriding and antimicrobial and analgesic medication. Deep, puncture or contaminated wounds may require a drain to be placed for several days and/or surgery to remove damaged tissue and close the wound. Some wounds may be life threatening, requiring emergency care including radiographs, hospitalisation and surgery. In all cases, regular follow-ups with your veterinarian and home nursing care are essential, and treatment will be extended if any abscess develops at the wound site.

Our pet’s health is our responsibility!

Caring for our pet’s health and wellbeing is one of our main responsibilities as owners and providing high quality veterinary care when needed should always be a priority. Pet insurance could help you access the recommended treatments for your pet, whether you are facing an emergency, a common health problem or managing a chronic condition.

You can’t always avoid a trip to the veterinarian, but you can be prepared and help your back pocket against potentially huge bills with a pet insurance policy.

Image of Dr Rosemary Elliot

Dr Rosemary Elliot 

Dr Rosemary studied veterinary science at the University of Sydney after having established her career as a clinical psychologist, and has qualifications of BVSc (Hons), MANZCVS (Animal Welfare), MPsych (Clin), BA (Hons) as well as previously establishing her career as a clinical psychologist. Her experiences during veterinary training fostered an ambition to focus directly on animal welfare and ethics, with a particular interest in animal sentience and the human-animal bond. Currently working in small animal practice, Dr Rosemary combines her psychology background and veterinary skills to contribute to and promote animal welfare, and regularly contributes quality content to RSPCA Pet Insurance's Pet Care blog.