NEW YORK (MainStreet) —After Tobi Kosanke spent more than $5,000 on medical care for her pet chicken Lucy, she decided to cover Lucy's future medical needs through the Veterinary Pet Insurance Company, which already insured her parrots.
VPI was the only company Kosanke - of Hempstead, Tex. - found that would insure her "avian and exotic pets," meaning pets other than cats and dogs. She now has insurance through VPI for four parrots, four chickens, a duck and two geese, costing her $13 per month, she said.
"They are currently paying for chemotherapy for one of our chickens, who was diagnosed with leukemia - she lives in the house - and they have covered expensive surgeries for my other chickens as well," Kosanske said. "The insurance is so inexpensive that it is crazy to not have it."
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, Americans spent $19.1 billion on medical care for dogs in 2011, up 18.6% from 2006. For cats, the number increased 4.2% between 2006 and 2011 to $7.4 billion. Yet, only 6% of dog owners and 3% of cat owners carry pet insurance, according to the AVMA.
In addition to the VPI plan, Kosanke has ASPCA pet insurance for her seven dogs and one cat, costing her $300 per month. "We spend a lot on insurance," Kosanske said. "But the providers have paid so much that I am amazed they don't drop me"
Christina Khuly, of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., nearly lost her 10-year-old Rottweiler mix, Madison, to salmonella poisoning after she fed him raw trout bought at a grocery store.
Also see: The Priciest Pets Ever
"I didn’t know that this disease existed in farmed fish," Khuly said. "Two local vets didn’t catch it, and after four agonizing days of lack of appetite, vomiting, and finally bloody diarrhea, we took him to UC Davis. With their heroic efforts and Madison’s toughness, he made it through 20 days on the edge with the worst case their highly-experienced staff had ever seen."
Madison's doctors twice asked Khuly how far she wanted to go with his treatment, she said. Khuly said since she had coverage through Embrace Pet Insurance, she could let the doctors do whatever it took to save him, and they did.
Pet insurance doesn't always come off without a hitch.
Former Wall Street investment analyst David Keh bought pet insurance for his Standard Poodle puppy, Walter. However, his pet insurance provider declined to cover any of the $200 bill for Walter's ear infection, saying it was a preexisting condition, Keh said.
"That was really disappointing," Keh said. "Some companies have a lot of gotchas in there." When Keh, of New York City, got Walter a year ago, he was frustrated by the a lack of clear information online for first time pet owners. So he founded dugdug.com, so named for pet owners "digging" for information on pet care and products.
Recently, the website launched a pet insurance comparison tool based on extensive analysis of nine pet insurance companies' public filings. Currently, the nine companies only cover cats and dogs. Keh created a formula to analyze premiums, coverage exclusions and restrictions, hoping to compare companies easily and objectively.
Keh found that some pet insurance plans only provide basic coverage - like for accidents and injuries - and are as cheap as $10 per month. Some high-end plans can cost up to $100 per month, but most "decent" plans cost about $20 to $30 per month, Keh said. At the very least, a low-end plan provides peace of mind in case of an injury that could cost thousands of dollars without insurance, and perhaps only $500 with insurance, he said.
Legally, pet insurance is property insurance, more like automobile insurance than human health insurance, Keh said. All of the plans require pet parents to pay for veterinary services up front and differ on what and how much will be reimbursed, he said.
Also, some dog breeds are more expensive to insure than others, he said. He recommends that dog owners consider the breed and the diseases it's prone to when choosing a plan. Most plans reimburse between 70% and 90% of covered care, he said.
According to the independent pet insurance review website petinsurancereview.com, all plans allow claims from any licensed veterinarian, and plans generally do not cover preexisting conditions.
While Keh recommends pet insurance as a common sense choice, just like health insurance for humans, he said its important to read the fine print.
"You really want to go with a company that has a good reputation and doesn't try to weasel its way out of different treatments," Keh said.