Tuesday, 12 April 2011

It pays to be sure

The recently-published PDSA Animal Wellbeing (PAW) Report 2011 raises some interesting questions about the wellbeing of the UK’s pets. My heart sank when I saw that 48 per cent of dogs, 69 per cent of cats and 94 per cent of rabbits are not insured – some because owners felt it was too expensive and others because they didn’t think it necessary. I know, too, because I've done it myself, that some pet owners hesitate over buying pet insurance because they’re confused about which policy is best for them.

Charlie during his rehabilitation
Insurance might seem an unnecessary expense when your animal is healthy and you’re trying to save money, but I know from experience how crucial it is in times of crisis. Last year my whippet, Charlie, collapsed with spinal cord damage which left him quadriplegic. He had to have an MRI scan costing around £1,000 just to see if it was possible to operate, and this was followed by major surgery and regular physiotherapy sessions to help him onto his feet again. As the bill crept towards the £4,000 mark I was incredibly thankful that I had insured him so I could make sure he had the care and treatment he needed. Talking to friends about Charlie’s condition, I was horrified to hear from one person whose dog had suffered something similar but had been put to sleep because it wasn’t insured and its owners couldn’t afford the investigative scan, let alone any subsequent surgery. It’s still possible that the only option would have been to put the dog to sleep, but without investigating, who can be sure? I could see that my friend was still upset to think about it, and I can understand why.

Pet insurance can make the difference between having to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to life-saving surgery. But it isn’t just about making sure you’re covered for emergencies. Many animals will not need to have major surgery during their lives, but as they grow to a healthy old age, they may need long-term treatment for conditions such as arthritis. None of us can be sure that our animals won’t need that help, and insurance takes a lot of worry out of paying for treatment.

It has to be said, though, that it pays to shop around – and always read the small print. Years ago, I thought I’d been clever in finding a low-cost insurance policy for Murphy, my Irish wolfhound crossbreed. But when he was nine years old he was diagnosed with arthritis that would need continuous medication for the rest of his life, I realised that his insurance only covered him for £1,000 or the first year of treatment per condition – leaving me to foot the bill for a further four years of treatment. I couldn’t change to a different policy because insurers won’t cover you for existing conditions or, in many cases, for new conditions that relate to existing ones.

In my view, pet insurance is crucial. While I’d always prefer a ‘cover-for-life’ policy that doesn’t impose a time limit on each condition (although there may still be limits in terms of the amount you can claim per condition or per year), these premiums can be fairly expensive. If money is tight, a limited insurance policy is better than none at all. Despite its limits, Murphy’s insurance was well worth having. As he lived to a ripe old age, he developed other conditions, unrelated to his arthritis, and I was able to claim for treatment of these.

Pet insurance can be a confusing world and it pays to ask a lot of questions. For example, does your policy include cover for alternative therapies? What about hydrotherapy? And what happens as your pet gets older? It's also a good idea to take advice, both from other pet owners and from a website like InsureYourPet.co.uk, which offers unbiased advice and information on the various policies available.