Visits to the vet are an essential part of dog ownership, and dog owners are increasingly taking out insurance to help with the bills. Lucy Jones explains the different types of coverage.

As any dog owner knows, vet bills can be expensive. Dog owners spent $700 million at the vet in 2005, according to a recent study by the Australian Companion Animal Council. That made up a quarter of the total dog-related expenditure for the year, and another $80 million was spent on health care products such as flea control and worming.

In 2007, Hollard Insurance found that the average cost of treatment for multiple fractures is more than $1300. If this seems high, consider that the largest claim Hollard received that year for fractures was $13,500. Even a visit for a minor problem, such as an ear infection, can easily come to over $150.

To avoid being faced with considerable vet bills, or having to make a decision about treatment for your dog based on finances, pet insurance might be a viable option. Despite high levels of pet ownership in Australia, General Manager of Bow Wow Meow Insurance Greg Mattes estimates that only around three per cent of pets are insured, a low figure when compared to the UK or US.

As owners become more aware of pet insurance this is likely to change. Liz Walden from Petsecure has already seen growth. “More people are starting to insure their pets so there are lots more players coming onto the market,” Walden explains. “The volume of brands has just mushroomed.” Meaning more choice for dog owners, and more competition for their business.


Types of cover

There are two main types of pet insurance available – accident only and accident and illness cover.

Accident insurance usually covers your dog for a sudden, unforeseen or unintended event that causes injury.

These include motor vehicle accidents, fights with other animals, swallowing foreign objects, snake bites and allergic reactions. Typically there is no waiting time for accidental injury cover, which begins the day the insurance policy is approved.

Accident and illness insurance covers your pet for both accidental injury and illness, ranging from minor, short-term problems such as ear infections to major conditions requiring complex or ongoing treatment, such as diabetes and cancer.

Waiting periods of between 21 and 30 days apply for illness cover, though there is generally a waiting period of six months for treatment of cruciate ligament injuries or conditions.

Many higher level policies also have the option of extra cover to assist with routine care and preventative procedures. Petsecure, for example, offers a Wellness Care option on top of their basic cover, with maximum yearly benefits capped.

This option provides limited cover for de-sexing, microchipping, heartworm control, teeth-cleaning, prescription diets, alternative therapies, puppy training, vaccinations, heartworm tests or blood screening, and flea, tick or worm control.


How much does it cost?

All types of pet insurance follow a similar pricing structure with varying weekly, monthly or yearly premiums based on the level of cover and the excess payable by the dog owner on claims. The cheapest policy is not necessarily the best value. Cheaper policies are often cheaper for a reason and may offer less cover or have more limitations.

Basic accident only cover ranges from around $15 to $30 per month, accident and illness from around $27 to $40 per month and comprehensive plans with routine care benefits from $40 to $45 per month. Most insurance companies offer discounts of around 10-15 per cent for additional pets insured, and discounts may also be available for pensioners and assistance dogs.

It is important to understand the excess structure of your policy. A typical excess will be set at $100, $250 or $500, with premiums adjusted accordingly.

Owners can choose a to pay a higher premium so that, in the event of a claim, they pay a lower excess or no excess at all, or choose a lower premium and risk having to pay a higher excess if they need to make a claim.

Some policies offer a ‘per condition excess’, meaning that you will only need to pay the excess once for each non-related condition claimed in a year. This means that if your dog suffers from an ongoing illness, such as cancer, and requires follow up treatments, the excess will be charged only once in a year. Under other insurance policies, an excess is payable for every claim.

A cheaper option may be to insure your pet along with your home and contents insurance. This is only offered by some insurers, and typically offers lower levels of cover for accidental injuries.

What does it cover?

Insurers will typically pay 70-100 per cent of vet bills incurred, less the agreed excess. This is usually capped at a set amount, dependant on the level of insurance cover. Most basic insurance policies offer maximum annual benefits of around $6500, rising to as much as $18,000 for top level cover. Pet owners are generally able to use any licensed vet in Australia, but check the policy details carefully.

Vet consultations, specialist care, after-hours emergency visits, hospitalisation, surgery, diagnostic tests and prescription medication are covered under most accident and accident and illness policies. Euthanasia is also covered by most insurance policies, provided it is deemed necessary by a licensed vet. Many also cover emergency boarding fees if the owner is hospitalised and unable to care for their dog, as well as offering overseas pet travel insurance.

Some plans offer a range of extras with their comprehensive plans. Pet Plan’s Standard and Supreme plans cover the cost of cancelling your holidays if your dog undergoes surgery or goes missing up to seven days before or while you are away.

These plans also cover advertising and a reward if your dog is lost or stolen, and may refund the purchase price of your dog if it is not found. The purchase price of the dog may also be refunded if it dies from accident or illness.

Age restrictions can apply for pet insurance. For example, pets under eight weeks old cannot be insured and, while there is generally no upper age limit for accident insurance, some insurers do not offer illness coverage for older pets.

Pets over the age of nine often cannot be covered under a new pet insurance policy, but are eligible to remain covered for life if they are enrolled at a younger age. Older pets may also not be eligible for reduced premiums or excess.

Any dog that is banned by the Australian government or local authorities is not eligible for any type of cover. Racing dogs and dogs used for commercial purposes, such as guard dogs, are typically not able to be insured.


Understanding exclusions

Pregnancy, as well as elective treatments such as de-sexing, microchipping and cosmetic surgery, are generally not covered by standard insurance, though a small rebate may be available with higher levels of cover.

Insurance policies generally will not cover pets for pre-existing medical conditions, including any conditions that develop during the waiting period, and dogs must be fully vaccinated to be eligible for pet insurance.

Usually, hereditary and congenital conditions are covered, provided that no signs of the defects were present prior to commencing cover.

Tick paralysis is often a grey area when it comes to pet insurance. In many cases it is not covered under accident only policies and, in tick prone areas it may not be covered under any policies. Even with comprehensive cover, any benefit available is generally limited to a maximum of around $500, though it can be as low as $100.

Lucy Jones is a writer for Mahlab Media. Readers should seek independent advice before making any decision regarding insurance products.