You Need Pet Health Insurance (And Here's How It Works)

Healthy Paws Pet Insurance & Foundation

(This is a modified excerpt from Part 3 of my Quick-Start Guide to Your New Dog series and has been updated to include my experience with Chance's TPLO surgery!)

If you have a dog (or are thinking about getting one), I cannot recommend pet health insurance enough. The truth is, you never want to be put in the situation where you're making a decision about your pet's life based on whether you can afford it. Health insurance helps ensure you never have to make that call. For the most part, insurance covers major non-routine healthcare costs--if Puppy gets hit by a car, for example, or gets cancer--so when you're at your most distraught, you can just sign all the paperwork the vet throws at you without ALSO worrying about whether this means you won't be able to make rent next month.

I use Healthy Paws, and have so far had a GREAT experience with them. They cover more than a lot of other companies, they have an app that makes filing a claim as easy as snapping a picture on your smartphone, and their customer service is ON POINT. And special bonus for the Taking Fountain community-iIf you use any of the links in this post to sign up with them, you get a lifetime discount of up to 10%!  (Full disclosure: If you click through any of the links on my site and purchase Healthy Paws insurance, I get a referral bonus. But I promise you, I only discovered that I could do that as I was writing this blog and realized I had written a love letter to Healthy Paws to whom I give money every single month anyway and I thought, "they really should reward me somehow for this free advertising.") But I really want to emphasize--I would be recommending them even if I didn't stand to get a cent in return, and I am literally DELIGHTED to give them $40/month to cover Chance.

So with that out of the way, here's what you need to know about pet health insurance:

  • This Isn't Optional
    In my opinion, purchasing health insurance for your pet is a responsibility of pet ownership on par with feeding and housing. If you can't afford the $20-50/month for insurance, you should reconsider whether you're a good candidate to own a dog. You're not doing Puppy any favors by being his owner but not providing adequate healthcare.

    Caveat: If you are taking on a dog that has established medical issues, health insurance won't be covering any of them (because they are pre-existing conditions). So, you may need to do some thinking about whether paying a monthly premium ON TOP OF paying out-of-pocket for existing health issues is going to save you any money. Personally, it makes more sense to me to pay $40/month on the off-chance that Puppy gets hit by a car and you're suddenly facing a $5,000+ emergency surgery bill (which will ALWAYS be covered), no matter what pre-existing conditions he came with. But...maybe that's just me. You'll have to make your own decision. And another sidenote--if you're taking on a dog with established health issues, YOU ARE A GODDAMN SAINT AND I RAISE A GLASS TO YOU, MY FRIEND.
  • I Use Healthy Paws, But There Are Options
    A friend of mine recommended Healthy Paws, and when I did my research they frequently were ranked number 1 (see here and here, which include other recommended companies). I LOVE THEM. Their app is fantastic and so easy to use--you simply take a photo of your bill in the app and submit it, and in a couple weeks you get a reimbursement check in the mail. It is so easy and their customer service has been consistently OUTSTANDING. And, special bonus--if you use any of the links to Healthy Paws I've used on my site to sign up, you'll get a 10% lifetime discount!
  • It's Affordable, It Covers a Lot, But It Doesn't Cover Everything
    I started out paying $37/month (this year it only increased to $39.75 and I have been making claims regularly, I'll get into why in just a second), my annual deductible is only $100, and I'm getting reimbursed at 90%.

    My plan does not cover preventative services like vaccines, flea control, heartworm meds, spaying/neutering, grooming, dental care, or behavioral modification (definitely go to the website to read all the specifics), nor does it cover the office visit charge itself. However, I STILL find it worth it (just keep reading).

    If you're not familiar with how insurance works:
    • Your "premium" is that $37 you pay per month.
    • A "deductible" is a set amount of covered services that you have to pay for anyway before the company starts covering it. So, say you paid your $37 for January, and then Puppy broke his leg and the cast costs $100 (this is a ridiculous scenario but just bear with me). While normally the cast would be covered by insurance, you need to pay for the first $100 of covered services to hit your "deductible." So you would have to pay the full $100. But if Puppy broke his leg again in February and needed another cast, THAT cast would be covered by insurance.
    • Your "reimbursement level" is just how much insurance covers. I chose a really high reimbursement level--90%. In the above example, that means that Healthy Paws would send me a check for $90 for the February cast.
  • Waiting Periods and Pre-Existing Conditions
    When I signed up, a 15-day waiting period clock began. During that time, I had to take Chance for an enrollment vet exam. Anything that was diagnosed at that point would have been considered a "pre-existing condition" and would have been exempt from coverage. Fortunately, because he was so young, there was nothing wrong with him. THIS IS IMPORTANT: the longer you wait to sign up for coverage, the higher your chances of Puppy developing a "condition" that "pre-exists" his insurance enrollment--and that condition will NOT BE COVERED by insurance, EVER!!!! This is why signing up for insurance is THE VERY FIRST THING YOU NEED TO DO TODAY.
  • Insurance Covers Things Like Allergies
    A few months after I adopted Chance, he started scratching himself. Just a little at first. Then more...and more. Until he was scratching so much he was bleeding. It was obviously uncomfortable for him, and I couldn't sleep because he would scratch through the night. I took him to the vet, who diagnosed him with allergies.

    ALLERGIES. Such a simple, stupid little thing. But if I hadn't gotten insurance, it would have been a VERY expensive stupid little thing. Treatment for allergies involves trying a bunch of different prescription oral antihistamines and steroids (covered), medicated shampoos (covered), prescription creams and lotions (covered), and finally a $400 blood test to determine what his specific allergies were (covered). This test revealed that Chance had a bunch of environmental AND food allergies. We switched his food and things got better for awhile, but then they got worse, so our vet prescribed a new wonder-drug called Apoquel--which costs $200/month!

    Let me make this totally clear: Chance seemed like a completely healthy dog. And the health problem he DOES have (allergies) seems like it wouldn't be THAT expensive, and maybe it's not worth spending $450/year on insurance, right? But without insurance, I would have had to deal with a dog scratching himself bloody every day, or spend $2,400/year on prescription meds that would help. Having insurance has already saved me $2,160 on his Apoquel prescription ALONE, and Chance does not have cancer and has not been hit by a car. Just sayin'.

    NOT covered: special foods and/or supplements like fish oil. But that's ok, because the expensive stuff was all the prescription stuff. And unlike something like a broken leg, it's really hard to figure out exactly what's going on with allergies, and exactly what will help. This is why I was making regular claims for the first entire year of being with Healthy Paws. AND MY PREMIUM ONLY INCREASED A COUPLE DOLLARS. I've just been really satisfied with this company.
    Look, this is something NO ONE sees coming. I was all proud of my decision to sign up for health insurance when our worst problem was ALLERGIES. Little did I know...

    So, about a month ago, Chance seemed to be walking funny. Like, not even limping, really. But when I would be giving him a bath, he'd be totally cool with me lifting up one back leg, but was not happy about me picking up the other one. After a couple of days, I realized...he really didn't seem to be putting weight on his right hind leg. He was like...walking on his tiptoes. It was the weirdest thing. He wasn't yelping, we'd been going to agility classes regularly...but then one day he didn't want to go on a walk. Just lay down and looked at me when I grabbed his leash.

    Took him to the vet, who suggested I restrict his activity for two weeks and see if it improved.

    It did not. And Chance was diagnosed with a torn CCL.

    This is like the ACL in a person, and you have two options--try to treat it with rest/restriction, or surgery. The CCL never heals; the best you can hope for is that scar tissue grows and stabilizes the knee joint.

    I took him to a surgeon (Dr. Alan Schulman at the Animal Medical Center of Southern California) who confirmed the worst--Chance had torn his CCL and needed a TPLO (tibial-plateau-leveling osteotomy).

    By this point, Chance wasn't able to put any weight at all on his leg, and though he was being a total trooper about it, you could tell he was in pain. Cost of the surgery? NEARLY $5,000. Which needs to be paid before surgery.

    You guys. I don't just have $5,000 lying around to throw down unexpectedly. THANK GOD FOR HEALTHY PAWS. Chance had surgery on a Wednesday (put it on my Amex), I submitted the claim on Saturday, and got notification that the claim had been processed by the following Wednesday--they were covering almost all of it (minus the exam fee--which is standard--and the experimental plasma treatment I'd authorized the vet to give). Now I'm just waiting for the mailman to deliver the reimbursement check. And then this morning I got the email below from Healthy Paws. I LOVE THEM AND THEY HAVE A CUSTOMER FOR LIFE.

Do you have pet health insurance? Do you have any words of wisdom for your neighbors? Would love to hear from you in the comments below!