Buying a policy to protect your animal kingdom can be a smart move. But shop carefully.
Credit: Illustrations: Na Kim

Most pet owners are prepared for the usual expense of regular checkups and vaccinations. Then there's the unexpected. Just the cost of diagnosing what ails a pet adds up, with MRIs and CT scans running up to $1,000 a pop.

"People don't realize the advances in veterinary care," says Nick Braun, founder of, an online service that helps pet owners compare plans. Animals now benefit from human-grade health care as everything from joint-replacement surgery to cancer treatment has become common. That can leave owners of uncovered pets facing hard decisions, says Kristen Lynch executive director of the North American Pet Health Insurance Association. Fortunately, pet insurance can help defray those costs.

3 Basic Types of Coverage

• Accident only: $12 - $20 a month. This is the cheapest and most limited coverage. As the name implies, it only covers health issues related to accidents.

• Major medical: $30 - $50 a month. This covers emergency care, accidents, illnesses, cancer, orthopedic issues, hereditary conditions, and prescriptions.

• Wellness: $60 - $70 a month. This covers accidents, major issues, and preventative care, such as vaccinations, dental and even flea and tick treatment.

• Premiums are based on a pet's breed, age, and location at the time of enrollment; the cost of veterinary care varies across the country.

Buy Early

Enroll when your pet is healthy and as soon as you adopt (you can even cover senior pets as old as 12, depending on the breed). "They'll have a clean bill of health so you don't have to worry about any exclusions," says Braun.

All insurance companies currently exclude preexisting conditions, as Caron Golden, a freelance writer in San Diego, learned when she sought insurance for her first dog, a year-old rescue. "She vomited, and as a novice owner, I immediately took her to the vet," Golden recalls. "Then I applied for insurance. Once the vomiting incident was on the books, there was no coverage for gastrointestinal issues." But for the two Rhodesian ridgebacks she has now, insurance has covered the cost of everything from tummy trouble to cancer treatment. "The number one thing I tell people is, read your policy," says Lynch, and be sure you understand the fine print. Also talk to your vet about health issues that might come up for your pet. Large dogs, for example, are prone to joint trouble, and costly hip or knee replacements are common.

If you decide pet insurance is out of your budget, there are still ways to help defray the costs of pet ownership: Keep your pets' teeth clean. Dental problems are pricey to treat and lead to other health issues, including heart disease. And, above all, watch their weight. Obesity worsens many of the most expensive conditions to treat, including arthritis, joint problems, and cancer.