Phoebe Update and a Question: Is Pet Insurance Worthwhile?

Many of you have asked for an update on our cat Phoebe. She was born with a very defective heart. Instead of being separated into chambers, basically Pheobe’s heart is one big sack. Even her heart valves are defective. If she were a human being, in a prosperous country, she would be waiting for a heart transplant. Cats, however, can’t have heart transplants. Our vet has said that we should enjoy every day we have with her, but that we should not expect her to live for more than nine months from now. She is on a few inexpensive medications to make her days comfortable. She’s slowed down a bit and is showing the first signs of heart failure (an occasional cough), but otherwise acts like a normal cat, playing with Trout and enjoying long afternoon naps.

She is a daily reminder that we should not take life for granted, that we have no control over when our time to pass will come, that we need to celebrate each day as sacred and make the best of the time we have on this earth. The thoughts and prayers readers of this blog have sent our way are greatly appreciated. You, our readers, are people who grow, make, share, and are involved in making this world a better place. We our fortunate to be in communion with you, some in person, others in spirit.

As this blog is practical one, I have a question for you. Thankfully we did not have to make any hard financial decisions regarding her care. There’s simply nothing that can be done. But veterinary expenses raise some real ethical (I’ll leave those ethical questions for philosophers and theologians to parse out) and financial quandaries.  As to those financial questions, I’m curious to hear from blog readers about veterinary insurance. Do you think it’s worthwhile? Have you used it to care for the pets in your own household?

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  1. VPI is the most popular brand of pet insurance. As a veterinarian, I would guess that 20-30% of my clients have some type of insurance. The fine print is tricky. Pre existing conditions and many breed associated illnesses are not covered by most companies.

  2. Personally I’d rather self insure. Save up an emergency fund. Then you have money for whatever might happen and you don’t have to fight with insurance companies if your pet gets sick.

  3. I have never used pet insurance and I hope it never becomes the norm in pet care because I think it will create exactly the same sort of mess that for-profit insurance has made of the human health care system. In that case, people who cannot afford pet insurance will simply let their pets suffer or abandon them because the industry will drive up costs and put all veterinary procedures out of reach of almost everyone while premiums end up within reach of a very few. (And you’re unlikely to get coverage through any employer.) At least for uninsured people we have some safety nets, shredded though they may be.

    As expensive as veterinary care can be I’m always struck by how inexpensive it is compared to similar procedures for people. Without the insurance industry mucking it up, good vet care is still fairly affordable for people with even a moderate income. Last December, I paid $1600 for an emergency splenectomy for my dog. You could probably add, at a minimum, another zero to that amount for the same surgery on a person. More people can afford $1600 than $16,000.

    For animals, I find that these things usually come down to quality of life and very often doing the maximum would result in a decreased quality of life even if that life is lengthened somewhat. For example, I did chemo on one dog and while she lived probably 3-1/2 to 4 months longer than she would have, she was miserable most of the time. All told, she had about as many “feel good” days as she would have if I’d just let nature take its course while providing palliative care.

    As for Phoebe, she may surprise you. She has no concept of medical diagnoses, no idea that she has such a serious health issue and no need to stress over it as we would. So she could very well exceed the vet’s prognosis and just keep on keepin’ on. Let’s hope so. Here’s to Phoebe (and her devoted people)!

    • Thank you for your comment about insurance driving up costs for medical care. I’ve long thought that myself, but it’s good to hear someone else say it. At least I’m not the only person thinking that.

      I, too, am always pleasantly surprised at the very reasonable cost of veterinary care. We were charged a mere $25.00 for a recent cat x-ray, a tiny fraction of what our insurance company paid for my husband’s recent knee x-ray. My husband and I joke that from now on, we’ll have our own personal care handled at the vet clinic.

      All our thoughts are with Phoebe. She’s in good hands!

    • As I understand it, it’s not exactly the same situation. Medical costs have gone up, in part, because some insurance carriers (Medicare primarily) have forced medical providers to accept, as 100% payment, ridiculously low fees. Since their costs are not met by those payments, other patients with better, higher-paying coverage are billed more to make up the difference. In veterinary practice the providers are not forced to accept the insurance payment as 100% – they can still expect the pet owner to chip in. I had VPI coverage – they pay a percentage, reimbursed to the pet owner, but the pet owner pays the vet the entire amount billed.

    • Ya, i’d rather see a vet for personal health care if I could, a vet knows more because he/she has to cure a chicken, a dog, hog, and a frog…all in the same day! I’m not that complicated…..:)


  4. Poor Phoebe. I’m glad she’s doing as well as she is, given the circumstances.

    I looked into pet insurance when I got my first dog, 5 years ago, and then again when I got my second dog, 2 years ago.

    Both times I came to the conclusion that I was better off putting the amount of the premiums into a dedicated savings account. The plans that were reasonable only covered major items, and the plans that were comprehensive were outrageously expensive.

    To date, each dog costs me ~$200 a year in standard vet bills (yearly exam, tick disease/heartworm blood panel and 6 months of heartworm meds). I just did another, albeit quick, quote check, and insurance would cost $35 per dog for a maximum of $2000 (minus deductible) of emergency vet bills for limited items. To get coverage that would pay for their yearly checkups would cost almost $70 a month, or over $800 a year, to give me $150 to go towards general care. For me, those numbers just don’t add up.

    Of course, no one can predict the future, but I’d rather take my chances (and given that I’m in the lucky financial position to cover emergencies without insurance) and start a “doggy” savings account than pay an insurance company.

    I feed raw, pay attention to their health, keep them slightly underweight (well, Kip is, Katy (the rescue) is a pudge, but has lost over 5 pounds since I got her, which is over 20% of her starting weight. Go Katy!!), keep them active (both physically and mentally) – basically, I do what I can to keep them safe and healthy. Kip has had one minor surgery ($600, which insurance wouldn’t not have covered), and eventually needs some dental work (broken molar, we’re on “wait and see” with the vet’s blessing), but basic insurance wouldn’t cover that either.

    My advice is to look at your various insurance options (and I’m in Canada, so plans and prices may be different here), and either start dedicating those premiums every month to a separate savings account, or put aside a certain amount of money that is your “pre-set” limit on the amount you would pay without a lot of thought (mine is $5000 – a very arbitrary amount, and it *really* depends on the issue, the age and health of the animal, one’s financial state, etc.). That way, you have a pool of money that you have already spent, so to speak, on your animals, which may make future medical decisions easier.

    And please keep posting Phoebe updates!

  5. We had veterinary insurance at one point, but cancelled it as we didn’t see the benefit. It was a high-deductible plan that only covered major illness and not routine/annual visits and vaccinations.

    Then my beloved cat, Henry, got very ill. Some of his organs were shutting down and he required a feeding tube. Because he was still relatively young, we opted for the surgery and we spent the next few months caring for him: round the clock tube feedings, medications, ultrasounds, etc.

    The little sh*t made a full recovery and is just fine. Of course, all of this happened after we cancelled the insurance. However, with the high deductible ($5,000) we had on our plan, our out of pocket expenses ($6,200) wouldn’t have been too different.

    If Henry had been any older, we probably would have had him euthanized – not a decision I take lightly and I feel like a monster for just typing it. It’s all about quality of life and I know you want the best for your Phoebe; you’ll do what feels right.

  6. we have a doberman that we intend to put into a sport…either agility or Schutzhund. in either case, broken legs, wrenched joints, and the like are a very real possibility. when he gets older and we start training him, i will absolutely purchase insurance. one of the women in my club has given me a list of medical costs her dog has racked up since starting him in sports (specifically flyball and agility) and it’s insane.

  7. I looked into it when I got my first 2 cats, and it just didn’t seem to add up. As a poster above said, it costs several hundred dollars to get routine care covered, and then you can only expect back a small amount of what you paid in.

    For non-routine care, by the time you read the fine print, pretty much any illness won’t be covered, but an accident would be. So, if your cat got hit by a car, that would be covered, but if he got kidney disease (which, almost all cats who live long lives get) that wouldn’t be covered.

    So, I didn’t buy it. It didn’t seem worth it.

    After about a year, the boys started getting sick. Kitten, who had always had gingivitis (red and swollen gums) started getting lumps on his gums and bleeding. We did a bunch of antibiotics and cleanings every 6 months, plus some novel treatments my vet found in journals, but eventually had to pull all of his teeth. None of that would have been covered by pet insurance; they generally don’t cover dental problems, and when they do, the premium is HUGE. We decided to treat (and ultimately, eliminate the problem by pulling his teeth) because it hurt him to eat.

    BestKitty, was even more complicated. He had a series of birth defects (as best as we could figure, he had always had them), but to determine that was the cause of his problems, we had to get an MRI and nasal endoscopy done. That was expensive. The hiatial hernia needed surgery (it was immediately life threatening), but the sinus problems (his sinuses weren’t seperated from his mouth properly) could only be treated at a veternary university. We also had to sort out his allergies (he went into anaphaptic shock when fed certain foods, so needed testing for those foods). Nothing would have been covered by insurance, since they were all traced to pre-existing conditions (the birth defects).

    So, I self insure, and I’ve used Care Credit when the costs got higher than my savings could cover; they offer 3-24 months no finance charges (depending on the amount charged), and that always lets me spread things out so I can handle it.

  8. I have had many cats and never had pet insurance for any of them. While they did have the occasion illness, it was never more than about $500 and when they died, it was either very suddenly or their illness was so bad that no amount of insurance would have saved their lives.

    Dogs, OTOH … I got my first dog a year and a half ago — a puppy from the pound — and he started having really bad seizures within a few weeks. Plus he ate weird things and injured himself in weird ways. I went from barely going to the vet to going to the vet at least once a month. He unfortunately died due to the seizures, so my next dog was an adult beagle from a rescue. (I wanted a medical history.) This time I got insurance. She’s a really smart dog but she doesn’t seem to have any sense. She’s eaten poop from four different species (dog, cat, horse, and manatee). She managed to break an unbreakable bone and so I actually had to perform the heimlich on her. (Learn it if you don’t know it.) And this morning she managed to get into my lunch for work and eat a 9inch sub in under a minute flat. (This is a 25lb dog, btw.) I filed my first claim a few weeks ago and I haven’t gotten it back so I’ll see how this goes. If it’s not going to cover much, I’ll probably drop it. It’s not covering the flea stuff, heartworm pills, shots, teeth cleaning…

    I think vet costs are going up a lot right now because these younger vets have huge student loans. When I was calling around to get my last kitten fixed, most places wanted over $400! Uh, no. My current vet (who’s older and well-established) wanted about $100.

  9. Well wishes to Phoebe. It’s not easy, parenting a pet we know we will lose. Bless you Homegrowns for taking such good care of her.

    I have never found a pet insurance policy that I was willing to buy. Most of the ones I’ve seen are not worth the investment.

  10. I concur with self-insuring. By putting the amount you’d pay in premiums into a savings account, you have coverage for both emergency and non-emergency expenses. I also have a CareCredit card, which I got when my dog had a medical emergency that I didn’t have savings to cover at the time. You get 6 months interest free, which wasn’t impossible to pay off in time.

  11. The last time I looked into insurance for my cats, it didn’t cover anything preventative, like annual check-ups and vaccinations. The problem is, that’s pretty much what I’d need it for! And for cats as old as mine–7 and 13–it would be prohibitively expensive. I’ve got savings and a credit card, and that’s what I use for the cats’ care.

    I suspect the insurance might be a better bet for someone with young cats who go outside, since so many bad things can happen to outside cats.

  12. I don’t have pet insurance, but a friend got it immediately after her dog swallowed a leash with a pet sitter (his pet sitter insurance covered the visit). Since then he’s had to go to the emergency vet twice more, the second time for surgery, for again, ingesting large things he shouldn’t be eating. So.. for her it definitely was worth it. As for myself, I sock away a small amount of money each month from my paycheck that accrues for little medical emergencies. The last time I brought my bunny in for a potential ear infection (her ear was drooping but I caught it so early there weren’t even any signs of huge ear mite colonies) it was less than $100 to treat. However, the time before that, I took my dog at the time (she’s since passed from old age) in because she had a raging fever and wasn’t eating: staying at the vet overnight for fluids, and then getting antibiotics set my family back $4000. Other than that I’ve never had any other problems. Sorry this doesn’t help at all.. it’s like human health, a lot of people forego getting health insurance because of the costs, but because I bike I absolutely must have it. Do you think your animals might be more accident/injury prone? This probably isn’t the best way to go about it, but with above poster I would compare rates and shop around if you feel strongly that you should get it for your animals.

  13. I’m with your other commenters – I have never bought it and probably never will. We try to keep our animals in good health, and have had nice vets be willing to work with us to develop treatment plans when needed. Vet care shouldn’t take cues from our horrible healthcare system.

  14. I thought Kathy P. said it very well – it comes down to quality of life. I don’t want to put my pets through an expensive and difficult procedure. They aren’t going to understand that it is potentially prolonging their life. And I would honestly be doing it for myself rather than them.

    I have horses – vet bills don’t get much bigger than at the barn where I keep them. On Dec.23 2011 I trailered a friend and her horse to a specialty clinic 2 hours away to have a diagnostic procedure done. It turned out her horse had a very difficult infection – it could be treated, but there was no guarantee of a return to normal health for the horse.

    I won’t forget that evening for a long time. My friend, who is 60 and never married, made the decision to put her horse down. When making the decision, she said to the vet ‘this horse is like a son to me’. But as soon as it was done, she turned to me and said ‘i’m so glad he won’t suffer’. I will never forget how brave she was.

  15. I agree with the other posters…you are far better starting a savings account for an emergency medical fund for your pets than purchasing insurance. We do that and when the time comes to spend it, we can make choices based on what we feel is adequate care, not skimping on money but not shelling out for outlandish services that, while available, may not be the right thing to do. These days vets are as skilled as MDs in extending life, but it may be at the expense of allowing the a dog or cat to live as a dog or cat would. I mean, you can do chemo on a pet, but the fact is they have no understanding of that they’re being made to feel so ill to attempt a cure for their cancer. I’m not sure if those kinds of things are worth it.

  16. I faced a horrendous time when my hen, Fancy, was ill and died. I could not afford the $175 Sunday visit, nor could I afford the $85 weekday rate, plus driving 25 miles, one way. Those are the costs for visits, not treatment after she got there. I tried my best to do what I could. While I was devastated at her illnes and death, at the end of the day she was a beloved animal, just an animal. I am not heartless, just face reality.

    Next time a hen gets that ill, I will put her out of her misery very soon. Even if I could afford pet insurance, I would not purchase it, nor would I go to extremes to pay for treatment.

    A British woman raked me over the coals for not getting her to the vet and sparing no expense. I was already in a state of shock, and she was heartless.

    Just let me say, if people want to spend that much money on an animal and can afford it, that’s nice. I cannot afford it. While I loved her so much, I don’t love my other three hens. No, I would never buy pet insurance even if I could afford it.

    Erik, would you get insurance on the hens you have or just cats?

  17. Hey Everybody! Sorry for the long delay for posting these later comments. We were both away from the computer all day. We moderate comments simply to keep the spam from cluttering everything up, but sometimes I wonder if spam wouldn’t be better than making you wait.

    Thank you for your comments and good wishes for Phoebe. But I must say that pic Erik took of her (on our unmade bed with its constant compliment of little mice thankyouverymuch) is really unflattering to her. She looks fat and squinty eyed. Admittedly, it’s really hard to photograph a black cat, but I’m going to try to get a better shot. She’s actually a very pretty, petite witchy cat.

    Regarding insurance, I think we’ve been thinking much along the same lines as the majority of the comments: prevention is the key, set some money aside, know your limits–and your pet’s– and don’t trust insurance companies.

    We’ve been lucky. Phoebe’s case is sad but inexpensive. Trout is lacking in common sense and seems to have no natural fear responses at all (e.g. he chases the vacuum), so we keep him indoors. Hopefully that will keep his expenses down.

    We were lucky that our dog, Spike, was healthy all his life–even his teeth were perfect. We seriously had zero expenses for him, except shots, until the very end. He was a purebred dog, and I’d just like to put a plug in here for the integrity of honest breeders who aren’t in it for the money, but for the love of the breed.

    In his last year or so, when his back started to weaken and hurt him, we put money toward PT (hydrotherapy) for him to keep him walking, and I think that was extremely worthwhile. It extended his life–his quality of life–and he loved every minute of it. So–there’s a plug for hydrotherapy, too.

    But on the way to PT with him I’d always grumble about why it was my dog got massages and I didn’t. Something very wrong there…

  18. We have insurance for our two cats, one of whom has a history of UTIs. He almost died the last time, and if we hadn’t bought the insurance for him, we wouldn’t have been able to afford the care that saved his life. It costs about $25 a month, and it pretty much pays for itself. I can’t tell you how heartbroken I would have been to lose the fuzzy little bastard.

    I can’t read about your Phoebe without getting all teary eyed. I think the world of you for opening your heart to her and giving her a beautiful life.

    On the downside, the insurance is through Banfield, and I would very much prefer to go with a local vet. It’s something to look into when our finances are better.

  19. I hope Phoebe has wonderful days before she travels to the rainbow bridge. She’s one of the lucky ones to have humans that love her so much.

    I had pet insurance but chose to cancel it because what I saved did not offset how much it cost. My dog had to have two tooth extraction (he broke them chewing on nectarine pits) and in the end, just like regular human health insurance, they nit picked what they would cover and then only covered 80% of what they thought it should have cost, not what it actually cost. They ended up only covering 50% of one tooth extraction, not both. Now we self-insure and pay attention to their health.

  20. Kelly,
    I asked if you would buy insurance for cats and chickens if you bought insurance. Don’t you have chickens?

    When our dog was hit by a car, ex and older children rushed it to the vet. When it came home, it was given a bed in the basement, ruined the blanket I had to give up AND was fed special expensive food and tended to round the clock. I grumbled aloud and to myself that when I had been near death (seriously), I got no special treatment before or after hospital stay and no visits from anyone. I did not begrudge the dog medical care or attention.

  21. @Parsimony and @Linda

    We don’t insure the chickens, and wouldn’t. There’s lots of reasons for this. The foremost is that we consider them livestock, not pets. This doesn’t mean that we don’t want them healthy and happy, it just means we’re not going to go through extraordinary measures to keep them alive. People are, obviously, going to disagree on this topic. It’s a whole tangled bundle of attitudes and ethics.

    @Parsimony: It’s a shame that woman took you to task over the chicken.

    Our stance on the chickens is this: if they are wounded, I’d patch them up. If they’re sick, I’ll isolate them and keep them warm. Once we resorted to antibiotics for a hen. We got some finger wagging on that from our more upright peers, but it saved the hen. I debate whether we should keep a supply around.

    I’ve always said chickens have 2 settings: on and off. Once they get sick, they’re hard, if not impossible, to save. In their case its all about prevention. IMHO.

    To answer the second part of @Linda’s questions: As far as the cats go, we’ve decided not to insure them.

  22. I got burned by pet insurance a couple of times .. they wouldn’t pay for problems they decided were “preexisting”. I do have a membership in a discount program called “Pet Assure” though, they pay 25%, but they don’t give me problems with exclusions; as a matter of fact I think I’ve used them every time I’ve gone to the vet in the past year or so..

  23. I read a story a couple of months ago in the New York Times about how doctors approach their own personal end-of-life care decisions. In many cases, when the diagnosis is in, doctors tend to forgo a lot of the expensive, risky, bend-over-backwards experimental clinical trials that they typically offer to their patients. Instead, many opt to receive end-of-life care that will keep them as comfortable as possible and allow them to spend time with their loved ones, without costing a bajillion dollars to increase survival odds by 2%. It seems to me like this is generally the best approach to take with all of the animals that we care for, human or otherwise.

  24. I’m married to a vet and here is what he says when people ask:
    (1) insurance companies only work when people pay more into it than they have to pay out, so chances are you aren’t going to get your money’s worth.
    (2) vet offices don’t take insurance directly (at least not yet) so you still need to have the money upfront and then get reimbursed
    (3) if you have the discipline, it is much better for you to set the premium aside in your own account (as people recommend above). That way it is there when you need it and still yours if you don’t.

  25. When we adopted our dog, the husband and I considered insurance, but ultimately decided to just put the amount we would pay for a monthly premium into a savings account every month, as many others have suggested.

    Then le dog broke his leg, and went through months and months of care and surgeries and prescriptions and followups and on and on. The money we had saved up didn’t even come close to covering the expenses. Not even close. He is now fully insured. It is basically catastrophe insurance, with a somewhat high deductible that drops the monthly premiums down a little. Routine stuff isn’t covered, but if something huge were to happen again, it would make such a difference.

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