Sunday 23 October 2016

Beware the real costs of providing insurance for your pet

Peter Wedderburn

Published 27/10/2015 | 02:30

Irish pets are now able to avail of MRI scans and even chemotherapy
Irish pets are now able to avail of MRI scans and even chemotherapy

As Irish society has become more urban and anonymous, people have become closer than ever to their pets. The undemanding company of animals offers solace in a hostile world. And as pets have become more important to people, owners are keener than ever to do everything possible to keep their animal friends alive and well.

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Irish pets can now avail of a standard of healthcare that surpasses that available to many humans in the poorer countries of the world.

MRI scans, brain surgery and the latest chemotherapy for cancer are widely available, with minimal waiting lists. There's one catch: the price tag. There are no medical cards for pets, and while charities such as the Blue Cross make sure essential veterinary care is available to every animal in need, their clinics are not able to fund the pricier treatments and surgeries.

So the choice faced by pet owners is either pay it yourself, or take out pet insurance so the bills are covered. The pet insurance option is appealing: you pay a small monthly premium while your dog is still healthy, and if illness or an accident strike, the insurance company pays the vet's fees on your behalf.

You don't need to stop and think about whether you can afford a particular procedure: if your pet is insured, you can be assured that the best will be done for your pet and somebody else will pay for it.

There are four pet insurance providers in Ireland, so there's plenty of competition, allowing owners to shop around to get the best deal. In theory, this all sounds smooth and simple. What about in practice? The truth is that, as with other types of insurance, it isn't easy for pet owners to make clear comparisons between different offerings. And while insurance providers are always keen to welcome new business, it can get trickier further down the road when the owner of an insured pet discovers issues that need to be resolved.

There are many possible complications: a company may refuse to pay the full amount of a bill; a claim may be declined because there had been signs of the illness prior to the period of insurance; or payment may be turned down because a condition is not included in the insurance cover (e.g. dental care).

It's always upsetting for an owner when their pet insurance provider doesn't pay up as expected, but the truth is that if the small print of the insurance policy had been carefully scrutinised when the policy was initially taken out, the risk of this happening could easily have been identified. It takes time and concentration to do this, but if it isn't done, and an owner focuses solely on buying the cheapest available premium, there's a higher chance that they're going to be disappointed at a later stage.

Not all pet insurance complications can be avoided.

A reader, Michelle, wrote to me recently with a sad story: "My older dog recently turned eight. Last year, I insured her for €127 a year. This year, even though I haven't made any claims, the same policy is €295. No other insurers will accept me now as the cut-off age for new policies is eight years."

Michelle is furious. She feels the company can now charge any amount it feels like.

Her policy has more than doubled in a year, so will the same happen next year?

Michelle is disabled, and while her dogs are not official therapy dogs, they are an important part of her life. She wants to be sure she can help them if they fall ill, but she only has limited resources.

So what can Michelle do? The truth is, very little. She either pays the higher premium or stops the insurance and saves her money to put towards any eventual vet bills. It doesn't seem very fair, does it?

Irish Independent

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