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Q: Fifi's vet fees are ridiculously high, and I can't imagine what I'd do if she ever fell seriously ill. Whom, besides my parents, could I get to foot the bill?

A: Bill and Hillary may not realize it, but animals need affordable health care, too. Don't laugh -- your big, slobbery-though-lovable hound's hip replacement may cost less than Grandma's, but at the Animal Medical Center in Manhattan it will still set you back $3,200. And if your cute little kitty should ever need brain surgery, you're looking at another $3,000. The best way to avoid having to pull a Dr. Jack on your best bud -- and not put a serious crimp in your personal spending habits -- is to invest in pet insurance.

Pet plans work just like human ones. (And coverage details vary just as widely between companies.) Veterinary Pet Insurance (800-872-7387, www.petinsurance.com) is the oldest and largest provider, with 150,000 furry patients in its care nationwide. All major illnesses are covered (with a $40 deductible), but if your dog or cat has pre-existing, congenital, or hereditary health problems, it's out of luck. That includes, for example, your shar-pei's skin problems, and your bichon's heart condition, and your Labrador's bad hip joints.

If your prized poodle already has the sniffles and you want to sign up to save on future occurrences, Premier Pet Insurance (877-774-2273, www. ppins.com) covers preexisting problems after 90 days of wellness -- but only if they're not serious or terminal. Unlike VPI, Premier doesn't have fixed reimbursements for each procedure, which helps if your vet is pricey, and it's the only company that covers spaying and neutering. But you'll have to look elsewhere if your dog is 9 or more years old.

Preferred PetHealth Plus (1-888-424-4644, www.pethealthplus.com) could potentially save you serious cash if your animal has congenital or hereditary conditions, since both are covered. However, the maximum it will reimburse you over your pet's entire lifetime is a meager $5,000, unless you pay extra premiums (yearly) to double it.

Depending on your pet's age, the premium you'll have to pay each year for any pet insurance averages $200, which, VPI reminds us, making us feel terribly guilty, is simply "the price of a good night out."


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