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The Latest In Pet Insurance

Pets, like humans, are at risk of suffering medical problems. The injury could be a broken bone or a serious illness, but the resulting vet bill can be staggering. Caught financially unprepared, some pet owners find themselves forced to choose between their pocketbooks and their pets.

Early Show Contributor Debbye Turner, who is also a veterinarian, examines pet insurance and compares some of the available plans.

What is pet insurance?

Pet insurance, like medical insurance for humans, can help reduce that risk of caring for a pet and lessen the frequency of "financial euthanasia," the decision to put a pet to sleep rather than incur a large debt attempting to heal.

Pet insurance is common in many European countries. However, it remains rare in the U.S. There are about 130 million pet cats and dogs in the United States, but only a handful of pet owners (fewer than 300,000) take advantage of these policies.

There are a few different pet insurance companies, each of which offers many types of policies and varying degrees of coverage.

Some policies pay for all types of veterinary care, including annual checkups and immunizations.

Others only cover accidents and illnesses.

Some have pre-set annual or incident limits and some have deductibles. Premiums vary depending on the plan and can run from $99 a year for a simple HMO type discount plan up to $500 for a select breed indemnity plan.

Each plan has its pros and cons, and each must be carefully examined (especially the fine print) so that you can select a plan that's best for your pet. A carefully chosen plan can give you peace of mind that your pet will be able to get the best medical care regardless of cost.

Who should consider pet insurance?

Pet owners should ask themselves, "Do I want 'a' pet, or do I want 'this' pet?" A bad candidate for pet insurance is a pet owner who wants "a dog" but put him to sleep instead of spending large amounts of money to save him if that dog gets sick or injured.

If you are the type of dog owner who would devote an unlimited amount of time and money into healing your dog, then you are a good candidate for pet insurance, because it will probably save you money in a bad situation. Unfortunately, many pet owners put a dollar value on their pets' lives. When the bills start to add up, many pet owners consider euthanasia at around $250. Pet insurance is still very rare.

What are my choices?

    VPI is the oldest, largest and most well-known provider of pet insurance in the United States. It was founded in 1980. The company estimates that they have 200,000 policies currently oustanding.

    VPI does not cover:
    1) Hip and elbow dysplasia found mostly in large breed dogs;
    2) Patellar luxation (slipping knee cap) found mostly in small breed dogs;
    3) OCD (Osteochondrosis dessicans) usually presents itself as a bone chip in a joint and is found mostly in large breed dogs;
    4) Liver shunt is found mostly in small breed dogs;
    5) Wobbler's disease (neck instability) found mostly in Dobermans and other large breed dogs;
    6) Von Willebrad's disease (bleeding disorder) found mostly in Dobermans and other large breed dogs;
    7) Entropian/Ectropian/Distichiasis/Trishiasis (eyelash/eyelid problems that cause the eyelashes to irritate the eyes) can be found in all breeds.

    The Advantage Plus Plan's premiums start at $15.92/month. Its Gold Plan policy starts at $9.08/month with a $40 per incident.

    PetCare (Owned by Pethealth Inc.) has been in business for three years in Canada but only available in the United States since May 2001. Coverage is available in 43 states. The company currently holds about 30,000 policies outstanding in the United States and Canada.

    PetCare doesn't cover maintenance like annual check-up, shots, heartworm pills etc.. But their plan provides comprehensive coverage for things that pet owners can't budget for like catastrophic illnesses and accidents.

    PetCare does cover congenital and hereditary problems (as long as they take out the policy before the onset of symptoms). The insurance pays 25 percent of the cost of prescribed pet food for the first 6 months.

    The company allows a set dollar amount for each illness category (per lifetime) but there are no annual limits. Pets are covered from 8 weeks of age, and there is no upper age limit. There are five different programs depending of your needs. There are also coverage differences depending on age.

    The insurance offers the following plans:

    QuickCare for Dogs
    Monthly Premium: $ 9.95 Annual Premium: $ 119.40
    QuickCare Gold for Dogs
    Monthly Premium: $ 29.95 Annual Premium: $ 359.40
    QuickCare Senior for Dogs
    Monthly Premium: $ 29.95 Annual Premium: $ 359.40

    QuickCare for Cats
    Monthly Premium: $ 8.50 Annual Premium: $ 102.00
    QuickCare for Indoor Cats
    Monthly Premium: $ 9.95 Annual Premium: $ 119.40
    QuickCare Gold for Cats
    Monthly Premium: $ 19.95 Annual Premium: $ 239.40
    QuickCare Senior for Cats
    Monthly Premium: $ 19.95 Annual Premium: $ 239.40

    Pet Assure covers all pets, animals of all ages and any health condition — regardless of pre-existing conditions. The plan is five years old and has no health-related exclusions and helps owners save on food, boarding, training and vet bills.

    There is a 25% discount on vet bills and 10-30% discount on food and other. The only stipulation is that owners have to use a participating vet or a participating food, grooming, training supplier.
    There are no deductibles, benefit caps, or limits. No medical record check or approval process in necessary so there is no waiting period.

    The plan has about 50,000 policy holders with a 87 percent renewal rate. Pet Assure cost $99 for one pet, or a family plan of $149 which covers up to four pets.

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