04/26/2018 05:46 EDT

Here's How Much Pet Insurance Costs -- And What It Really Does

Is it the best thing since liver snaps or is it a big old pile of poop?

Writer Samantha Bonar has a deep and loving relationship with her two rescue dogs, including a pit bull named Kaya.

Her relationship with their pet insurance provider, however, is decidedly rockier. 

On one hand, she told HuffPost, her pet insurance “literally saved Kaya’s life twice now.” But then Bonar, who lives in Los Angeles, described how difficult it’s been to get the coverage she paid for. She’s concluded that pet insurance ― one of the fastest growing insurances because so many employers now offer it as a benefit ― is a “mixed bag.” 

Courtesy of Samantha Bonar
Kaya's life was saved by having pet insurance, which even covered acupuncture treatments for her cancer.

In 2016, Kaya was treated for a benign tumor on her spinal cord that required $15,000 in radiation treatments. More recently, the pup needed treatment for a very aggressive oral cancer. Bonar said she had to “fight [her pet insurer] tooth and nail to get them to cover Kaya’s latest cancer,” which the insurer initially called a pre-existing condition. Bonar disagreed. She said she had to take her complaints to the state insurance commissioner before the company agreed to pay for treatment. 

Still, as difficult and stressful as the process was, Bonar said that she couldn’t have afforded Kaya’s treatment if it hadn’t been for the pet insurance. Her other dog, Davy, has spinal arthritis and partial ligament tears in both knees. His medication, underwater treadmill therapy and acupuncture cost $500 a month.

With insurance, she pays $50 a month out of pocket for Davy’s care. 

“I would never do without pet insurance, because overall it has saved me tens of thousands of dollars,” Bonar said. “But know that, like human insurance, you must read your policy very carefully, know exactly what is and is not covered, educate yourself about veterinary medicine and fight for the coverage you are entitled to.” 

Like all other insurance, you are basically gambling on whether you’ll need pet insurance. While it may feel like a waste of money if you bought pet insurance and Fido stays healthy, the upside is that, well, your pet is healthy!

Still, it can be confusing to know if pet insurance is worth buying and what you’ll actually get. Here is what you need to know:

1. You may not ever use the policy you bought.

Basically, there are three types of plans. An accident-only policy covers accidents (like being hit by a car) but not illnesses. A second, more popular, type of plan covers both. And then there are plans that cover routine wellness care, like annual exams, flea and tick treatments, and vaccinations.

Insurance companies offer policies they believe they can make money on. If the company didn’t make money, it would go out of business. In many cases, the insurance company will win: You’ll pay a premium and never file or collect on a claim.

But before you beat yourself up or think you’ve made a foolish investment, relax. What you really bought was the peace of mind that comes from knowing if something catastrophic and expensive happened to your pet, you wouldn’t be in the horrific position of “economic euthanasia,” or being forced to put a beloved pet down because you can’t afford to treat its health condition.

Instead of looking at pet insurance as a way to save money, consider it a savings plan for inevitable pet health bills. Alternately, put the money in an emergency fund so you’ll have it when one strikes.

2. Different factors affect the cost of pet insurance.

There are many variables that will affect the cost, depending on which of the three policy types you buy and how much are you willing to absorb out of pocket if your pet gets sick. And insurance for dogs costs more than insurance for cats. 

Another thing that will determine your premium amount is the age of your companion animal. The older it is, the more insurance will cost. The reason is simple: Just like humans, pets develop more serious illnesses when they get older. Certain breeds are prone to developing cancers or having some hereditary conditions, which will also raise the cost of insurance. Larger dogs are more likely to need care for hip dysplasia, for example. 

Almost all pet policies exclude pre-existing conditions, and some may exclude breed-specific conditions or charge you more to cover them.

3. It averages around $335 for cats and $535 for dogs.

Eighty-one percent of the pet insurance policies written in the U.S. and Canada  are accident and illness plans for dogs; 14.6 percent provide the same kind of coverage for cats and other pets. Only about 4 percent of the market is made up of accident-only and wellness coverage, according to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association, a trade group. 

Accident and illness coverage averaged $535 annually for dogs and $335 annually for cats in 2017, the group said in its about-to-be released NAPHIA State of the Industry 2018 report.  

4. You might still have to pay all bills up front.  

Like people insurance, pet policies come with different levels of deductibles, co-payments and premiums. Unlike people coverage, though, you usually have to pay vet bills in full and then wait to be reimbursed. It’s worth asking your veterinarian directly if payment is required up front or if you can wait until insurance pays the claim. Plans are increasingly moving toward directly paying veterinarians on the day of service ― a good thing ― but know what you’re getting. 

5. You will need to ask a ton of questions. 

Plans also pay out differently. Some plans pay a flat percentage of covered costs after your deductible is met. Others determine what they will pay based on the “usual and customary costs” of vet care in your area, which may be less than your doctor charges. Some plans cap the annual maximum amount they will cover at $5,000, $10,000 or $15,000; others have no annual ceiling. Some plans exclude certain treatments; others include them. So ask a lot of questions and make sure you keep a copy of the policy.