Robert Bashore’s dogs cornered a muskrat in the backyard of his Lansing, Michigan, home. The muskrat won, and Nathan, a 5-year-old dachshund, fared the worst in that heated battle. Puncture wounds required a trip to the emergency vet — and an $800 bill. VPI Pet Insurance, a subsidiary of Nationwide, reimbursed Bashore for nearly half that amount.

"Get [insurance] as early in the dog’s life as possible," says Bashore, who insured Nathan the muskrat hunter before he was 1 year old. "If that’s not possible, still get it knowing that there may be some exclusions based on the dog’s health history."

Many owners feel the same way as Bashore. In 2017, more than 2 million pets in the U.S. and Canada were insured, reports The New York Times. According to Healthy Paws Insurance and Foundation, $17.1 billion was spent by pet owners on veterinary services in the same year. The average annual premium for accident and illness coverage was $516, and the average claim was $278.

Whether you have a newly rescued cat or a pack of muskrat-hating pooches, pet insurance can help save money on veterinary care. While far less complicated than insurance for people, finding the right plan can still be a difficult process. Here are a few things to consider before selecting insurance for your pet.

Early enrollment has its benefits

Pet insurance companies use three key factors to determine your monthly rate: the pet’s age, breed and your geographic location. As with insurance for people, monthly rates increase over time. Accident and illness coverage for a 2-year-old Lab mix in Canton, Ohio, may cost $29 a month with a $100 deductible through ASPCA Pet Health Insurance, while the rate for a 9-year-old Lab mix in the same town would cost $31 a month.

Many plans also cap the enrollment age for pets. ASPCA Pet Health Insurance enrolls dogs ages 12 and under, and cats ages 14 and under. VPI, the nation’s largest and oldest pet insurer, enrolls companion animals — including birds, lizards and mice — under the age of 10. Healthy Paws Pet Insurance & Foundation sets the age limit at 14. All three plans cover your pet throughout its life.

Focus on the coverage rather than the premium

Every plan offers something different and pays based on certain criteria, so look beyond monthly premiums to get what’s best for your pet and your budget. Healthy Paws focuses on accident and illness coverage, with monthly rates for a 2-year-old mixed breed Lab ranging from $35 to $45. Once you pay the annual $100 deductible, the plan covers 90 percent of the veterinary bill with no service limits. ASPCA Pet Health Insurance offers four levels of coverage ranging from $5,000 to unlimited annually with deductibles ranging from $100 to $500, and reimburses pet owners 90 percent of usual and customary rates for veterinary services.

VPI’s popular Major Medical plan is around $80 with a $100 deductible. The ASPCA and VPI also offer wellness plans that cover routine services such as dental cleanings or vaccination for an additional monthly rate.

Pre-existing conditions are not necessarily a deal breaker

kitten being held by vet If you're going to buy an insurance policy, it's best to do so when you first get a pet. (Photo: Lubava/Shutterstock)

Pet insurance companies will not cover conditions that existed before coverage begins, which is why it’s best to insure pets early. For older pets that do have pre-existing conditions, VPI offers an accidents and injury plan that ranges from $12 to $15 a month. However, some pre-existing conditions, such as recurring ear infections, may be eligible for coverage after a six-month waiting period, says Lisa Hockensmith, a representative with Hartville Group, which insures more than 100,000 pets for ASPCA Pet Health Insurance.

"Pet insurance does a lot to make pet care much more affordable," she says. "Pre-existing conditions don’t have to limit everything."

Pet owners foot the bill first — then get reimbursed

Human insurance typically pays the healthcare provider, while pet insurance reimburses owners for a portion of veterinary bills. This means you have to cover fees for diagnostic exams or trips to the emergency veterinary hospital before getting a portion of those expenses reimbursed. Consider opening an emergency savings account to ensure that unexpected bills don’t put a serious dent in your household expenses, and don’t be afraid to ask your insurance provider for help.

"There are situations where a pet parent has an emergency, and there could be a $4,000 to $5,000 bill for the emergency, and they don’t have the room on their credit card to put the deposit down," said Healthy Paws CEO Rob Jackson in 2012. "If the emergency hospital and pet parent immediately faxes info of what’s going to happen to us, we can appraise and pay the hospital."

Jackson's dog Lilly had her own health scare that led to $700 in diagnostic tests. "Pet parents really view their four-legged family members as their children. About 43 percent sleep in the pet parent's bed, that's a long way from the dog house in the back yard," he says. "There's hardly a thing we do for our two-legged family members that we can't do for our four-legged family members."

An ounce of prevention can save a wad of cash

In 2011, Teresa Praus-Choe of Las Vegas, Nevada, joined VPI, paying $17 a month to insure Crispy Bacon, her pot-bellied pig. A month after getting coverage, she filed her first claim when Crispy discovered medication that had been placed within hooves’ reach.

"We found a table knocked over with pills and half-pills on the floor," said Praus-Choe, adding that one bottle was completely gone. "He started vomiting and we called around to find an emergency room that referred me to another one."

After calling the ASPCA Poison Control Center (1-888-426-4435) for guidance, the Praus-Choes loaded Crispy into the car bound for an emergency hospital. The pig was given an IV and charcoal, then transferred to his veterinarian for two days of monitoring. The total bill was $2,000 and VPI covered $350, about 20 months' worth of premiums.

"He’s like my child and I would not have a child without having health insurance," Praus-Choe said. "It’s more than I would have gotten back if I didn’t have it."

Ask about discounts

Pet insurance has become a popular company perk. According to VPI, half of Fortune 500 companies offers group discounts of its insurance plans. Use VPI’s online search tool to see if your company offers group discounts. ASPCA Pet Insurance has become popular among employers as well. Call 1-888-716-1203 to see if your company is in the insurance network — or make a pitch to your HR rep. Healthy Paws (1-800-453-4054) also offers coupon codes and discounted rates to members of AAA, AARP, Costco and the military. Multiple pet discounts may be available as well.

Remember, plans don’t cover everything

Just like insurance for people, pet insurance won’t cover every accident or ailment. "That’s what a lot of people don’t understand," Bashore says. "But the ultimate thing is it gives you peace of mind that you don’t have to take your dog or cat in the ER, they tell you the cost and you think, 'How am I going to pay for this?' You don’t have to be put in that position."

Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in August 2012.

Is pet insurance worth it?
Whether you have a newly rescued cat or a pack of muskrat-hating pooches, pet insurance can help save money on veterinary care.