Thousands of pet owners are being forced to ditch insurance for their dogs and cats because of rocketing premiums.
Around 12 million households have a pet but as many as eight million are uninsured, leaving them at risk of hefty bills should they have to visit a vet.
Here we look at the options available, how to keep costs down and the key facts pet owners need to know about their insurance cover.
Protected: Eunice Salmon has lifetime cover for her dogs
Low cost cover
Animal owners who want some financial protection from unexpected bills have choices which need not break the bank. Accident-only policies exclude claims for all pet illnesses but cover potentially big costs after a mishap.
Annual cover starts from about £35, available from The Insurance Emporium and based on a four-year-old cross-breed dog. This policy would pay up to £2,500 per injury or accident with a £75 excess – the first part of an insurance claim which the policyholder must pay.
There are then ‘per condition’ or ‘time limited’ insurance policies. These plans offer some level of cover, but with limits and restrictions. There is either a cap on the payout per condition which when exceeded results in the condition being excluded from cover.
Or there is a time limit on a claim – after which there will be no further payouts. Younger dogs and cats and cross-breeds are cheaper to insure than their older, pure-breed counterparts which tend to be more susceptible to illnesses.
This type of insurance can prove invaluable should you have to make a claim – with payouts exceeding the premiums paid. The average claim across all pets is about £600. But with such low cost cover, pet owners run the risk of being unable to insure their dog or cat in future if it is diagnosed with an ongoing condition.
Hannah Maundrell is editor of comparison website money.co.uk. She says low cost pet insurance can provide a financial backstop and some reassurance. But she warns consumers to check all the exclusions and conditions before committing to a specific policy.
Tempting: Gwen Weston is saving to meet future vet bills for her two collies
She says: ‘Read the small print and understand your cover. This will avoid any nasty surprises in the future when you come to make a claim.’
More pet owners are now ditching costly cover and relying on self-funding – through savings and income – to meet any future vet bills.
On the plus side, if you do not have to use the funds during your pet’s lifetime you will still have the cash. The downside is that you run the risk of being unable to meet any large vet bill. This could lead to difficult decisions being made about what to do with your pet, particularly older ones, or you might be forced to fund treatment by credit card borrowing or taking out a personal loan.
Gwen Weston, from Birmingham, has been putting aside £10 to £20 each month just in case her border collies Briar and Rowan need expensive treatment. This is after her pet insurance with Sainsbury’s Bank became unaffordable. Gwen, a 64-year-old care worker, says: ‘I could no longer afford the premiums for both dogs. The last renewal notice I received 18 months ago quoted an annual premium of around £1,500. I could not afford it.
‘I think the cost increased due to their age as they had just hit 10. But it seemed harsh. I had only previously made two small claims for less than £200. Historically I had been paying between £300 and £400 a year for both dogs. Of course I worry about potentially big bills in the future but I had no choice – I had to cancel the cover.’
Some owners who cannot meet vet bills and who do not have insurance may be eligible for free or low cost treatment through animal charities such as the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).
The dispensary has 48 pet hospitals countrywide which carry out millions of treatments every year. Pet owners are means-tested and must be in receipt of certain State benefits. For more information visit pdsa.org.uk.
Play cute: Cheaper cover is available for younger pets
Maximum benefit policy
With this type of insurance your pet is covered for the cost of treatment for a particular illness or condition up to a maximum payout limit. Once you reach it, you can continue with the insurance but you can no longer claim against the medical condition you have received the maximum payout on. Usually there is no time limit on each claim.
When David Lofting’s beloved labrador retriever Toby was diagnosed with a liver problem in July 2016, followed by neurological issues months later, David was relieved he had pet insurance as treatment was expensive. His ‘advanced cover’ plan, through Direct Line, offered a maximum benefit of £8,000 per condition – with no time limit.
David, 61, a retired police officer, who lives with wife Ros in Cambridgeshire, says: ‘Our vet – Hampton Vets in Peterborough – was amazing and gave Toby excellent care, but his serious conditions meant he needed a number of medications. The drugs from the vet cost £250 a month.’ David paid a £95 excess on the two claims – for each condition – and Direct Line picked up the bill for the remaining drugs. As a way of stretching the time he had to claim up to the £8,000 limit David started to buy Toby’s medication from accredited retailer Pet Drugs Online, which worked out cheaper at £90 a month.
Toby died in May last year at the age of 13. David says: ‘Having the insurance cover in place gave me peace of mind that I could get all the drugs Toby needed – including pain relief – without spending any time worrying about the cost.’
Many pet owners opt for the security of comprehensive insurance – known as lifetime cover – despite the eye-watering premiums. The advantage of this type of policy is that it should continue to pay out for ongoing illnesses and conditions year after year – albeit with annual limits. Among the insurers offering this cover are Animal Friends, Petplan, Pet Protect, More Than, Marks and Spencer, The Insurance Emporium and Post Office.
Lifetime cover for a two-year-old labrador retriever starts from about £150 a year. This is with Animal Friends and would offer up to £1,000 a year per condition towards vet bills with a £99 excess to pay on any claim. This limit renews each year as long as the policyholder continues to pay the premiums.
It is not just cats and dogs that need insurance. The Pet Population Report shows there are more than two million exotic animals kept as pets. These include iguanas, parrots, tortoises and snakes, plus there are around 20 million fish in indoor tanks
For more generous annual cover limits and for different dog breeds, premiums will be higher. Other ‘lifetime’ policies restrict total vet bill claims to a set amount each year. The limit is reinstated annually, including for ongoing conditions. This can be invaluable for owners where pets are suffering from chronic conditions.
For local authority worker Eunice Salmon, lifetime cover for her two rescue dogs Ben and Billy has been a prudent choice. Eunice, who is married to Robert and lives in Swindon, Wiltshire started insuring Ben when she first got him as an abandoned puppy at three months old.
Ben, a jack russell and staffordshire bull terrier cross-breed, was soon diagnosed with a skin condition caused by allergies and has required treatment for the past eight years. Eunice, 58, relies heavily on her £45 a month insurance with Petplan to cover the cost of the monthly immunotherapy injections and other medication Ben needs, which run into hundreds of pounds each month.
Ben will need this treatment for the rest of his life. Eunice must pay an excess on the claim for Ben’s condition – £140 each year – but the policy covers the rest and the £7,000 limit on cover for each condition renews each year. Eunice says: ‘It has provided huge peace of mind to know the cost of Ben’s treatment is covered for his life. Without the medication Ben’s condition causes him irritation and upset.
‘You always take a gamble with insurance – it looks expensive if you never make a claim. But in my case it has been a big benefit.’
As The Mail on Sunday highlighted recently, the downside of ‘lifetime’ cover is that customers often find that premiums rise sharply – particularly for older pets. This has not been the case so far for Eunice. It is also impossible for owners whose pets have ongoing conditions, such as Ben’s, to switch to another insurer and get cover for that condition. It means many owners find themselves trapped, paying expensive premiums.
It is not just cats and dogs that need insurance. The Pet Population Report shows there are more than two million exotic animals kept as pets. These include iguanas, parrots, tortoises and snakes, plus there are around 20 million fish in indoor tanks. A trip to the vet with an unusual animal can result in a large bill and standard pet insurance policies are not suitable. Specialist exotic animal insurance covers unusual pets. The policy should cover vets’ bills, the death of your pet through illness or accidental injury and even its theft.
If you have a lot of expensive equipment for your pet you can often get cover for this – in the event of damage caused by fire, a storm or lightning. Make sure you keep your pet in a proper enclosure with suitable ventilation and heating – or a claim could end up being rejected if the animal becomes ill. For advice about exotic pets and guidelines on welfare visit the British Veterinary Association website at bva.co.uk.
Don’t hang around…
Research by consumer group Which? shows that dog owners can pay as much as £2,000 a year for cover while cat owners could pay £1,500. But the earlier you buy a policy the cheaper it should be.
Harry Rose, money editor at Which? says: ‘Many pet owners are struggling to keep a lid on insurance costs, particularly after they have made a claim. For new pet owners the earlier you get cover the better. Not only will premiums be cheaper but a younger animal will have few pre-existing conditions, making for fewer exclusions and greater choice of policy.’
A ‘lifetime’ pet insurance policy for a six-month-old male cocker spaniel costs about £130 a year according to comparison website comparethemarket. This cover is from The Insurance Emporium and provides £2,000 of medical cover per condition per year during the policy’s term. There is a claim excess of £85.
This cover then renews for each condition each year – including ongoing conditions. In contrast, trying to get the same level of cover for an eight-year-old male dog of the same breed would cost around £310 per year.
This is with Animal Friends and there is a £99 excess to pay on each claim plus 20 per cent of any vet bill. There is £2,000 of annual cover per condition during the policy’s term and this renews each year. Once a cat or dog reaches age eight, insurers lift premiums significantly. Alternatively, they ask you to co-insure – so you contribute more towards each medical claim.
Pre-existing conditions pose similar problems. A majority of insurers will not cover them – others require your pet to have finished any treatment and be symptom-free for around two years before they will offer insurance. That is why it is sensible to start insuring cats and dogs when they are young.