Getting Your Buddy…or Betty…or Bowser Insured

By Susan Doktor

No matter what you call your service animal, you can count on one thing: he (or she) is going to come running when you do. There are over half a million service dogs in the US providing critical assistance to disabled people. Opening cabinet doors, soothing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, pulling wheelchairs and even detecting low blood sugar are among the amazing tasks these furry companions take on—and excel at.

Service dogs aren't born, of course, they're made. They're evaluated when they're pups to see if they're up to the job. If they do well during the "interview" phase, they're schooled by trained, dedicated professionals. They follow a curriculum to learn the skills they'll need. They're coached, cajoled and corrected, just as any young student would be. All of that takes time—and money, as you may have discovered. On average, it costs between $10,000 and $30,000 to create a service dog. That makes sense; service dog organizations invest a great deal in breeding and training them. But the emotional bond that develops between a service dog and the person he or she serves? That's priceless. And that makes two great reasons to consider protecting your service animal with pet health insurance.

Service Pet Insurance- cut assistance dog

The Pet Insurance Industry Then and Now

The first pet insurance policy was issued in Sweden about a hundred years ago. In the early years of the pet insurance industry, most policies were written to protect livestock. Fast forward to 1982, when the entertainment icon Lassie became the first American dog to be covered under health insurance. Like your service dog, Lassie was a working girl. But the vast majority of animals covered by health insurance today are pets. The good news is that most insurers cover service dogs the same way they cover dogs-at-leisure. What's more, in 2020, there were nearly 120 pet insurance companies competing for business. They're looking for ways to stand out from the crowd, which has driven innovation in the industry.

How to Pick a Pet Insurance Company

It comes down to choice: the best pet insurance companies give you lots of them. Perhaps the most important freedom some pet insurers give pet owners is the chance to visit the veterinarians and veterinary facilities they choose. Chances are when you welcome your service dog into your home, he or she already has a relationship with a top-notch vet. The organizations that place service dogs in their homes don't mess around with the health of their cherished charges. Just as it can improve health outcomes in humans, continuity of care can be a long-term health asset for your new companion. Dogs can't tell us directly what's bothering them, but a vet that has known your dog for all his or her life is better equipped to notice changes that tell the tale. That's another reason to maintain a vet relationship that's already in place.

Sharp Service Dog looking at camera

Look for a pet insurance policy that also gives you the option of seeing a wide range of veterinary specialists, from orthopedic surgeons to ophthalmologists, so you can be sure your companion gets precisely the care he or she needs for every health problem that may arise. Labrador and golden retrievers are among the breeds most frequently tapped for service work. Their intelligence and temperament make them top candidates for the job. But Goldens and Labs are also more susceptible to certain ailments. Having access to a qualified specialist is key to getting the best treatment for joint problems, allergies and other common retriever complaints.

Customize Your Plan to Meet Your Needs and Budget

Even barring any serious health problems, the annual cost of veterinary care for a large breed dog can top $1000. Accidents and illnesses can drive veterinary costs up into the tens of thousands. The average pet policy costs under $600 a year. Your actual premium will be determined by such factors as your dog's breed and age, as well as your location. But policies can be customized to fit within your budget.

Once again, the best insurers give you choices. Like human health insurance, most pet policies come with deductibles, coverage limits and co-pays. When you have the opportunity to customize these details, you can craft a plan you can readily afford. You can bring the cost of pet insurance down by choosing a higher deductible or co-pay. Many plans allow you to choose from several deductibles, which typically range from $100 to $1000 annually. They also permit you to select a co-pay of 10%, $20% or 30%. Lowering your annual or lifetime policy limits can also bring your premiums down, though you might regret that should your service dog need surgery or other expensive treatments. Lower-priced plans may not be as comprehensive as premium plans, but the bottom line is this: when you're facing a big vet bill, some insurance is better than no insurance.

Understanding What's Covered

Pet insurance policies are fairly uniform in the range of treatments they cover. Generally speaking, you can file claims for these veterinary services:

  • Treatment for accidents and illnesses
  • Hereditary condition
  • Congenital conditions
  • Chronic conditions
  • Cancer
  • Diagnostic treatment (x-rays, blood tests, etc.)
  • Surgery
  • Hospitalization
  • Emergency care
  • Specialist care

Some plans also cover prescription medicines, alternative or holistic care, and rehabilitative therapy. Once again, read any policy you're considering very carefully.

Understanding What's Not Covered

Under current law, human health insurance companies can't refuse to cover you for a pre-existing condition. But that progressive law hasn't trickled down to pet insurance—yet. There are exceptions, but most health insurance policies exclude pre-existing conditions from coverage. That's a great argument for purchasing insurance for your service dog when he or she is young and spry. You should also review your pet's health records before purchasing a policy. That's a critical step towards understanding what your expenses might be down the road. If your dog's health history is unremarkable when you purchase a policy, you can expect coverage for nearly all conditions. If not, it's best to know before selecting a policy. That way, you'll avoid disappointing and costly surprises.

Convenience Counts

The pet insurance industry is evolving every day, and already, most pet insurers offer a wide range of digital conveniences. It's easy to shop and sign up for a policy online and, nowadays, many insurers have proprietary mobile apps that allow you to file claims and manage your account from your smartphone. Some plans will pay your vet directly the day you receive services. That can be extra-handy when you're billed for an expensive service and don't have the cash on hand to pay for it.

Sometimes, we're not sure whether the symptoms our dogs present warrant a visit to the vet. Many insurers now offer the opportunity to chat with a veterinary specialist online or by phone to help you decide. That saves the insurance company money of course—the fewer files you claim, the fewer they have to pay out. But that feature also saves pet owners money by reducing co-pays. Emergency services are particularly costly. Veterinary specialists can also help you figure out whether a situation must be addressed immediately or can wait for morning or Monday.

Service dog licking his tongue

Ask and You May Receive

We'll leave you with one more money-saving tip. Many insurers offer discounts under certain circumstances. The most common is the multi-pet discount. Often you can save around 10% by putting two pets on the same policy. Some insurers offer discounts for members of the military, first responders and customers who work in the veterinary field. Pet insurance is becoming a popular employee benefit, too. If you or a family member has the option of purchasing pet insurance through an employer, you can often access discounted rates. As a disabled person, you've likely developed some serious self-advocacy skills. Put them to work for yourself and your furry companion. Purchasing pet insurance is just one more example of how it pays to speak up.

About the Author:

Susan Doktor is a journalist, business strategist, and devoted companion to her golden retriever, Sophie. She writes on a wide range of topics, including finance, technology and government affairs. Follow her on Twitter @branddoktor.

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