Take the bite out of vet bills
Money Magazine Australia|September 2021
Buying cover for your furry friend can cut the cost of pet care and avoid heartache
NICOLA FIELD

Last month we laid our 16-year-old chihuahua Puk to rest. Despite a lifetime of good health, an overnight stroke saw the little chap head downhill fast. It didn’t take Dr Doolittle to work out that euthanasia was the kindest option. The clinic staff were sympathetic and professional. No problems there. What surprised me was the cost. A few minutes with the vet, a couple of ml of barbiturate, and the bill was close to $200.

In Puk’s case, it was clear he was all out of options given his advanced years. However, a survey by Finder revealed pet owners would be willing to spend an average of $3500 to save their furry friend. That’s more than two weeks of the average salary.

But this level of financial devotion can fall well short of the mark if your pet suffers a serious illness or injury. PetSure’s Pet Health Monitor, which draws on insurance claims data between 2013 and 2018, found the single highest benefit paid over the period was $19,600 for a labrador requiring stomach surgery after it had wolfed down a corn cob.

More recently, Pet Insurance Australia reported a 300% increase in payments for rat bait poisoning, with insurance claims of up to $11,000 for pets that ingested bait – an unhappy side effect of the mouse plague impacting regional NSW and Queensland.

High vet bills underpin pet cover

The upshot is that pets, like people, can be prone to unexpected illness and injury. As with human medicine, veterinary treatment has benefitted from advances in new technologies and drugs. Unlike human health care, vet bills are not subsidised by Medicare or the savings of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. So, treatment can be expensive and the cost comes straight out of the owner’s pocket.

The prospect of punishing vet bills has seen 16% of pet owners take out insurance, though it could more accurately be described as “doggie cover”.

“Dogs make up 87% of our insured pet population,” says Kylie Mitchell, veterinary adviser and relationship manager at PetSure.

She advises cat owners to think about insurance too. “Cats can get themselves into an array of mishaps as well as suffer from various illnesses that can cost thousands to treat.” RSPCA Pet Insurance reports its highest cat claim in 2018-19 was $10,598 for cancer treatment.

What’s not covered

Knowing what you’re not covered for is just as important as understanding what you can claim. “Pet insurance policies are designed to help provide protection for unexpected vet expenses,” says PetSure’s Mitchell. “They are not designed to cover predictable or expected expenses, which may include things like vaccinations or desexing, as these are costs that are foreseen and can be planned for.”

In addition, insurance typically only provides cover for a set percentage of vet bills – anywhere from 60% to 85%. As the owner, you pay the balance.

With so many variables to weigh up, it can be false economy to choose the cheapest policy. Shopping around is always the starting point to getting the best deal, but Compare the Market’s Stephen Zeller notes that “some more expensive packages might actually deliver better value, depending on your pet’s needs”.

What to look for

One feature worth having is “gap only” cover. This sees the insurance company pay the vet directly, leaving the owner to pay any balance not covered by the policy after the dog has been treated. It’s far more financially friendly than having to pay the vet from your own pocket first, then claim back later.

The cost of cover

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