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The Ultimate Guide to Pet Insurance Costs: How Prices Vary by Breed and Tips to Help You Save

By: Javier Cruz  |  Last Updated: November 18, 2020
This content was originally published on Money.com

Your heart may want it all when it comes to insuring your dog or cat, but your head may balk at what that costs. Shopping smartly for pet insurance means understanding the factors that affect its price, and adjusting the ones you can control to get a policy you can live with, both financially and emotionally.

The first price factor is your pet’s species. Dogs cost more — some 60% more, on average — to insure than cats, in part due to data that shows dogs more often require care than cats, and it’s more expensive when it’s needed. According to a 2019 survey by the North American Pet Health Insurance Association (NAPHIA), Americans spent an average of $48.78 per month ($585.40 a year) insuring their dogs, and $29.16 per month ($349.93 a year) insuring their cats, based on premiums for accident & illness (“comprehensive”) plans.

Within each species, premiums vary significantly according to the financial risks you’re willing to take, the company you pick, and the animal’s breed, age, and location. Prices also vary, of course, by the scope of coverage you choose.

As an example of how those factors can combine to yield differing premiums, consider the cost of buying identical coverage for five-year old dogs of two different breeds. The English Bulldog would cost $180 to $240 more a year to insure than the Golden Retriever.

This guide explains how and why such disparities exist, so you can better understand the costs of pet insurance and the decisions you can take to tailor it to your priorities and budget.

Paying For Pet Insurance

Pet insurance is similar in many ways to human health insurance, with deductibles and reimbursement rates that can vary widely. Deductibles are the amount of money you’ll have to pay before your insurer begins to disburse payments — with pet insurance, this initial cost can range from $200 to as much as $1,000.

Even once you’ve paid down that deductible, your insurance won’t cover 100% of your expenses, but rather either 70%, 80%, or 90%. Those are known as reimbursement rates (or reimbursement percentages), and you can select which of the three or four amounts you want.

But another number also comes into the play. Your animal’s policy will have a cap on the amount of coverage provided in any given year; you choose one of several limits between $5,000 and $30,000. If you cap your insurance at $5,000 annually, and vet bills surpass that amount, the insurer won’t cover any more expenses until the next year.

Finally, know that, unlike many human insurance plans, pet insurance companies don’t cover costs upfront, but rather reimburse you at your policy’s rate after you pay the bill in full. This process can take 1-2 business days if you choose a direct deposit option, or 1-2 weeks if you choose to receive a check by mail.

The biggest cost factor: the scope of coverage

Unsurprisingly, the wider the range of medical issues you want covered for your pet, the higher your premiums. How many perils you insure against will affect your premiums more than any other choices you make about your policy.

Policies that cover both accident and Illness — also known as “comprehensive plans” — are the most popular type. They cover your pet for everything from toxin ingestion, cuts and lacerations, and encounters with cars to illnesses such as allergies, asthma, cancer, hospitalization, and even cancer. Here, again, are the national average costs for these plans:

If your budget is limited, you can save about two thirds on pet insurance by buying an accident-only plan. Here are the corresponding national-average premiums for accident coverage alone:

In short, then, you can save nearly $400 a year on average on insuring a dog and more than $200 on insuring a cat by choosing an accident-only plan rather than a comprehensive one that also includes illness coverage. While accident-only policies are an inexpensive option, they of course only cover accidents. That coverage may be of limited utility if your pet rarely if ever ventures outside, say, or isn’t prone to self-induced accidents such as eating things they shouldn’t.

Even a “comprehensive” accident-and-illness plan isn’t truly comprehensive, in that it will not cover some medical expenses. Most notably, routine and preventative care, such as vaccinations, tick and flea treatments and the like, are not included and generally require adding wellness coverage at extra cost. Some wellness plans charge a flat fee, while others calculate premiums by using your pet’s breed and/or your zip code.

Here are prices, based on the average of premiums from five insurers, on a representative dog and cat in Lake City, Florida (where you live affects premiums, as we note further down in the story):

Pet insurance companies differ in their policy provisions, of course. So while some companies offer wellness plans as a separate policy, others offer it as an add-on to their comprehensive policy. Also, though wellness-only plans typically don’t include dental cleaning as standard (this is usually part of illness coverage), some insurers do so: the American Kennel Club, for example, offers dental treatment as part of their DefenderPlus plan.

The bottom line: the greater the scope of coverage, the costlier the policy. This chart summarizes what you could pay, depending on whether you buy accident-only, accident and illness, or accident and illness plus wellness coverage. As it shows, you can easily save more than $200, on average, in premiums by foregoing wellness coverage.

What else affects pet insurance premiums

Beyond whether you own a dog or a cat, and how many components of coverage are in your policy — accidents and illness, accident-only, or wellness as an add-on — other key factors affect how much you will pay for pet insurance.

Here are the main factors, in rough order of how much they influence your costs, with some specifics on the size of their impact on premiums:

1. The deductible you choose

After the plan you choose, the deductible you select is the biggest factor that influences premium costs, our research revealed. As the table below illustrates, you’ll pay at least $200 more a year on average by opting for a deductible of $200 for your pet policy rather than one of $500. With a higher deductible still, the savings more than double; a policy with a $1,000 deductible costs $450 less per year than one with a $200 deductible.

2. The annual limit on expenses

The total annual expenses the policy will reimburse also affect the cost of your premiums, albeit by less than the deductible you choose. If your bills exceed the limit during the anniversary year for your coverage — that is, the 12-month period since you began or renewed the policy — no further expenses will be covered until the year ends. We’ve compared the average premium at 80% reimbursement for three different annual limits — from typical ($5,000) to high ($10,000) to extremely high ($30,000).

3. The proportion of expenses that are reimbursed

Adjusting the percentage of expenses the policy reimburses (up to the annual limit) can also reduce the cost of your premiums; unsurprisingly, the higher the proportion of reimbursement, the higher the premium you will pay. The table below — based on a $500 deductible for a dog’s comprehensive plan with a $5,000 a year treatment limit — underlines how much less you can pay, and what you can save. It reveals that premiums drop by more than $100 a year if you choose to have only 70% of costs reimbursed, rather than the maximum reimbursement of 90%.

4. Where you live

If you’ve ever requested a pet insurance quote, you may have noticed they asked for your zip code. This is because insurance companies consider your location when they determine premium costs.

A big factor is the relative cost of vet care across the country. According to 2016 claims data released by PetPlan, California pet parents pay an average of $1,500 a year in vet costs — but pets in North Dakota average a little less than $800. Rates may also vary within states, say between urban areas with higher costs or rural ones where rates might be lower. To find out average premium costs near you, 365 Pet Insurance has a helpful breakdown, with data for five cities per state.

The effect of different areas on accident risk also affects premiums for accident coverage. Urban dogs and cats have a higher probability of being in an accident — such as being hit by a car — than their rural counterparts. To mitigate these higher risks, insurance companies charge higher premiums.

5. Your pet’s breed

Aside from the disparity in premiums between dogs and cats, there are cost differences according to the specific breed of either species that you are insuring.

Breed makes a considerable difference in cost, since many are prone to hereditary diseases. English bulldogs, for example, are typically born with demodectic mange, which cost an average of $350 to treat, while Golden and Labrador Retrievers are more prone to suffering from elbow dysplasia, where surgery averages at $1,500-$4,000, per elbow, for young dogs.

To evaluate the differences in cost between cat and dog breeds, we requested a quote from each company using five of the most popular dog and cat breeds in the US, and then we calculated the average premium for each breed. Surprisingly, the differences between the least and most expensive was less than $3 a month for cats — but almost $14 in the case of dogs.

6. The age of the animal

The cost to insure your dog or cat will consistently increase as the animal gets older. Some, though not all, insurance companies limit plan options as your pet ages, and may even reject insuring your pet if it’s more than 15 years old.

The good news from our price data is that premiums barely budged at all for three-year-old pets compared with one-year-olds. However, the prices then climb steadily with age, reflecting the greater likelihood of an older pet getting sick compared with a younger one.

For both dogs and cats, premiums jumped by about 25% between the ages of three and five and about 50% between five and eight years old. With dogs, there was another leap of 50% or so between eight and ten, perhaps reflecting the higher cost of treatment compared with cats, the premiums for which jumped by about a third between ages eight and ten.

7. The insurer you choose

As with most other insurance types you buy, premiums to insure your pet range widely by insurance company. When we surveyed the cost of comprehensive (accident and illness) policies from five leading companies (see chart below), premiums for comparable coverage varied by more than 100% — that is, some insurers charged double the rates of others.

Those price differences could add up to more than $150 extra a year to insure a cat and upwards of $350 a year for a dog. However, keep in mind that the coverage you buy may also vary — and more than with some other policy types, such as automotive insurance, whose provisions are fairly explicit and consistent. As our pet insurance coverage report details, some insurers include dental coverage or behavioral therapy — to cite just two items — in their comprehensive plans and others don’t. It pays to explore coverage details for insurers you’re considering, beginning with the sample policies that most companies post on their websites.

For what it’s worth, of the insurers we surveyed, Embrace consistently had the cheapest plans for both cats and dogs, and Pet Premium the most expensive; FIGO, Nationwide, and Pets Best fell in the middle range for prices. However, these were quotes for a three-year mixed-breed pets in a Florida community, and from only five companies. The company that offers the lowest prices for you may differ.

Your choices and your costs

You can’t easily change some of the factors that affect what you pay for pet insurance — it’s unlikely you’ll switch your pet or the place you live anytime soon, for example. What you can do is consider the price factors that are within your control, and select a policy that best balances them, given your finances and priorities.

Among those choices, the size of deductible you opt for will most affect your policy’s cost — by hundreds of dollars a year, according to our price survey. Consider choosing the highest deductible you could afford to pay out of pocket were your pet to become seriously ill, whether from a medical condition or an accident.

Then weigh the lesser price factor of the percentage of reimbursement you will receive. The difference between being having 70%, 80%, or 90% of your medical bills reimbursed for the year won’t dramatically affect your annual premiums — the maximum impact was only $100 a so in our survey — but could add up to four figures in co-pays in the (statistically unlikely) event your pet suffers a serious ongoing condition, such as cancer.

Which brings us to the maximum annual limit for your policy, a final factor that determines its coverage and premiums. The impact of going to the highest typical level ($30,000) rather than the lowest ($5,000) could well be relatively modest — no more than $10 or so a month in our price survey.

Consider, though, if you could afford — or simply be comfortable paying — a copay of between 10% and 30% on a total bill that could run to four or five figures. (Parvovirus treatment, for example, can cost up to $2,000, while chemotherapy can run to $25,000 or more.) If the answer to that question is no, there may be little point to paying any extra to cover the cost of procedures. That’s because you may decline them for your pet because of the cost of your co-pay or because you judge the pet may be too old or suffer too much to endure procedures such as chemotherapy or multiple surgeries to repair injuries from a car accident. These realities only underline how pet insurance decisions can be not only financial but deeply personal.

Finally, consider whether to purchase add-on coverage for wellness procedures, which typically cover routine care, which is not covered by the typical comprehensive pet insurance plan. While the additional cost of such plans can be modest — typically far less than the premium for the comprehensive plan — so is the return, which for most pets will amount to only a few hundred dollars per year. You may be better off foregoing this coverage, and reserving your premium dollars for the accident and illness coverage that is the main reason most pet owners opt to insure their animals.

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