Health • Advances in veterinary medicine carry a high price tag.
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Back in May, Steve Moser and his partner, Mike Talbot, were out of town when the dog sitter called. Cliff, the 6-year-old Doberman they had raised since he was 6 weeks old, was limping. So when he returned, Steve took Cliff to his veterinarian, Jamie Rees at Mountain View Animal Hospital in Sandy.
"I remember thinking maybe he's getting arthritis or it's just a sprain," Moser said. "When she said, 'I don't think it's cancer, but we should do some more tests,' I was like, 'What?' I was so blown away."
Fresh frozen plasma transfusions, pain medications, chemotherapy and a leg amputation followed, adding up to physical and emotional trauma, not to mention more than $5,000 in bills. Moser said he's just grateful Cliff was insured.
"I can't tell you enough the burden that was lifted knowing that we could make decisions based on medicine instead of whether it would break the bank," Moser said. "It was so worth it."
Consumers who sign up for pet health policies still represent a fraction of pet owners, but those who have the insurance swear by it.
Rees, who's been in private practice for 13 years, said advances in human medicine are giving pet owners more medical options, from X-rays to CT scans to more effective medications. All of those come at a price.
"We use the same equipment, the same products and the same medications that are used in human medicine, so when the cost goes up on the human side, it also goes up for us," Rees said.
She said about only 10 percent to 15 percent of her animal patients are insured, but she's a passionate advocate and recommends policies to all of her human clients.
"I think it's heartbreaking to put an animal to sleep because of a financial decision," she said. "[Pet insurance] allows pet owners to make medical decisions based on what they want instead of what they can afford. For those who have it, I think it's a huge relief for them."
How it works • Conceptually, pet insurance is similar to human health insurance, with claims submitted for treatment. Basically, if you take your pet to the vet, you'll pay for services rendered out of pocket. If you're insured, you could get a substantial reimbursement.
Rates vary depending on which insurance company you go with, the animal's breed, age and pre-existing conditions, where you live and the type of coverage you want. Some pet owners just want coverage for when Fido swallows a spoon or breaks a leg. Others want that plus coverage for illnesses, prescriptions, hospitalization and hereditary diseases. Labradors, for example, are genetically predisposed to hip dysplasia, while French bulldogs are prone to glaucoma, factors that can affect premiums.
Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI), the nation's oldest and largest pet insurance company, has a half-million customers nationwide, with 1,400 in Utah, said company spokesman Adam Fell. For the best rates and options, the younger the animal, the better. Basic accident coverage through VPI is as low as $10 a month; the average VPI comprehensive policy costs $25 to $30 a month. While you could sock that away into a savings account for pet expenses, insurance provides for ongoing health problems, Fell said.
"You'll be saving for a long time just to cover one procedure," he said. "Pet insurance continues to pay out."
Large companies across the country are adding pet insurance as an option for their employees. Among them is Salt Lake City-based ARUP Laboratories, which has offered pet insurance as part of its comprehensive benefit package since 2006. The option adds to a good work environment, ARUP president and CEO Edward Ashwood said in a statement.
"For many of our employees, the definition of family extends to the care and well-being of our pets," Ashwood said. "By providing this supplemental plan, we can reduce the stress associated with high costs of caring for injured or ill pets."
Currently, 21 of ARUP's 3,000 employees participate in the program.
At Sugar House Veterinary Hospital, "less than 10 percent of their clients" insure their pets, but those who do have gotten their money's worth, said head receptionist Shannon McCullock.
"We have a client whose pet needed orthopedic surgery several times. Their insurance helped them pay for multiple expensive surgeries. We have another client whose pet developed arthritis and they came in weekly for medication and therapy, which their insurance covered," McCullock said. "Both of these clients would have come in for these services whether or not it was covered by insurance, but for some clients it could mean the difference between how much and what quality of treatment their pet could receive depending on their financial situation."
'The biggest blessing' • Insurance coverage for Cliff the Doberman cost Moser and Talbot $329 a year, which included extra coverage for cancer. Bills for his treatment total $5,500 so far and their insurer, VPI, has paid back $3,900 71 percent to date.
This summer, Cliff's cancer metastasized to a lung and rib. Despite herculean efforts, he died Aug. 3.
Even as the couple grieve, Moser credits veterinarian Rees as well as insurer VPI, calling the insurance coverage "the biggest blessing."
"[Rees] served us, not only as a highly competent veterinarian, but a hospice counselor," Moser said. "This coupled with VPI made this grievous journey easier to handle."