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Protecting the Smallest Member of Your Family: A Step-by-step Guide to Pet Insurance

Let's face it ? Fido and Fluffy are an important part of your family. Do you want to have to assign a dollar value to them if they become sick or injured?

That may well be the case if you don't have pet health insurance. Rising veterinary costs mean that pet owners can pay hundreds ? and even thousands ? of dollars for their pets' health problems. As the bills stack up, uninsured pet owners must determine how much they are willing to spend on their animal friend. It can be a heartbreaking decision to make.

Much like insurance for health, cars and homes, pet insurance helps people put a little money away now to avoid a major payout later. Coverage and cost vary, so it's important to thoroughly research the options if you decide to insure your pet.

Step one: Determine if Pet Insurance is Right for You

When people decide to get a pet, they often don't consider how they will deal with the inevitable unexpected illnesses or accidents. Keeping a pet indoors by no means eliminates all the hazards. They can still swallow foreign objects, ingest a poison or injure themselves. As well, living indoors does not make a pet immune to disease and infection ? particularly those that are common to their breed. Pets with access to the outdoors have even more opportunities to pick up a disease or get hurt.

Don't have a dog or cat? Insurance companies are starting to offer plans that meet the needs of a variety of pet owners. Some now offer coverage for birds and exotic animals.

Not all owners are good candidates for pet insurance, however. Pet insurance is ideal for owners who deeply love their pets and are willing to spend a significant amount of money to keep them healthy and extend their life. They buy their cherished companions the best food and care they can afford, sometimes even putting their pets' needs before their own. For this type of owner, pet insurance can be a smart investment that can prevent considerable costs and bring peace of mind.

Pet insurance is not a good investment for owners who don't have a strong emotional tie to their pet. Owners who would rather have their pets euthanized than spend money on vet bills are not good candidates for pet insurance.

Step two: Decide What Type of Coverage You Want

Most pet owners will weigh two main considerations when shopping for pet insurance: budget and coverage. Peace of mind can also be an important factor, but far more difficult to quantify.

Pet health insurance is still relatively new in the United States and Canada, so the options available are fewer than for other forms of insurance. That said, North American pet owners can choose from a variety of coverage choices, ranging from injury/accident-only to all-inclusive.

As with all insurance products, the cost of pet insurance increases as the coverage improves. As a pet owner, you must decide what is the right balance between affordability and the care you want for your pet.

- Coverage

When choosing pet insurance coverage, first consider what kind of insurance customer you are. Do you prefer all-inclusive coverage that pays for everything from routine checkups and vaccinations to accidents and chronic illnesses, or are you comfortable with a lesser degree of coverage that just kicks in during emergencies? Perhaps you prefer a flexible plan that offers discounts on a wide range of services, from veterinary care to training. This decision will lay the groundwork for your final choice.

Some issues to consider:

* Make sure to check for coverage of pre-existing conditions as well as breed-specific genetic ailments, such as hip dysplasia for large dogs. Some plans refuse to cover these conditions.

* Some plans place limits on annual, per-incident, per-illness or lifetime costs.

* How old is your pet? Coverage usually starts at eight weeks, but some plans won't cover pets over a certain age (usually between six and 10 years old, depending on the breed, type of animal and other factors).

- Cost

Payment options for pet insurance include flat fees or deductibles and/or co-payments. Not surprisingly, plans with lower monthly premiums come with higher deductibles and/or larger co-payments.

Some issues to consider:

* Insurance premiums are affected by the age, health and breed of your pet, as well as the type of animal.

* Some plans offers discounts for multiple pets.

* Plans generally require customers to pay the vet bill first and then submit receipts for reimbursement.

* Find out if the insurance premiums will increase as your pet ages.

* Depending on the plan you choose, the monthly premiums can range from less than $10 to about $40.

Step three: Choose an Insurer You've determined what you can afford to spend and the amount of pet insurance coverage you want.

Before selecting an insurer, here are some final considerations:

* Make a list of your questions and priorities in advance. Make sure to answer or check off each item when reviewing plan options.

* Research the insurer thoroughly. Review its website and sales materials, read its testimonials, talk to other pet owners and look for on-line reviews. How long has the company been in business? Are its customers satisfied? Make sure you feel comfortable about everything you hear or read.

* Compare the plan's benefit schedule with your vet's fees to determine to what degree the plan will cover the actual treatment costs.

* Find out how quickly the insurance company reimburses customers' claim payments and if it has claim deadlines.

* Read the fine print. Make sure you completely understand the plan's benefits and, more importantly, the limitations. If something isn't clear, ask ? and get the answer in writing. Otherwise, you might find you don't have the coverage you need if an accident occurs.

* Start a file for your pet. Use it for all receipts and insurance paperwork so you can keep on top of your claims and make sure you are maximizing your insurance investment.

Your responsibility as a pet owner doesn't end with food, shelter and affection. Pet health insurance can give the smallest member of your family a longer and healthier life ? and provide you with more time to enjoy the unconditional love it so willingly offers to you.

Burke Jones is a frequent contributor to Pet Health Depot.

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