by Michael L. Neiduski
If you have a bird dog, you know the feeling: that queasy, questioning feeling that comes the moment it’s time to load up and go to the vet. Sometimes it’s obvious – the flap of skin from barbed wire or a mouthful of quills staring you in the face as they lope back to you. Other times, it’s just in your gut – the loss of appetite, low drive or not wanting to get out of the box on a hunt, when in normal moments they’re ready to breathe fire like a “Game of Thrones” dragon to be cut loose afield. No one likes to admit it, but handcuffed to that decision to head into town comes a question: How much is this going to cost?
Want to tamp down the weight of that question or eliminate it all together? Enter pet insurance. Now, I’ll be honest, before I took up this assignment, I laughed at the notion of it. Oh joy, I thought, one more thing to auto-draft from my bank account that comes with too much hassle to use. You might be thinking the same thing while reading this. But, after asking around and doing a bit of research, as well as swiping my card a few too many times at vet offices this year, I’m starting to come around.
First things first, though. What exactly is pet insurance?
Available for a monthly or annual premium, pet insurance helps owners manage the costs of veterinary care. Like health insurance, pet insurance can cover unexpected medical expenses related to accidents, illnesses and injuries. Additional options exist to assist with preventative care costs.
Pet insurance policies can vary widely in terms of what they cover, so it’s important to review the policy details carefully before purchasing coverage. If your pet needs veterinary care, you can submit a claim to the insurance provider for reimbursement of covered expenses, up to the policy’s limits. As with all insurance, the propensity for exclusions exists, and matters of choice should be made with a discerning eye.
When it comes to pet insurance, coverage runs the gamut. Want to pony up and go for comprehensive? There’s a policy for that. But if you just want the peace of mind for those moments when the worst of the worst happens, there’s policies for that, too. No one should have to choose between bankruptcy and their bird dog.
That said, research is important here. There are seemingly as many options for coverage as there are dog breeds that chase grouse, and just as infinite a debate over which is best. It really comes down to what works for you.
Comprehensive coverage, including annual exams and vaccinations, is going to cost upfront but works well for those who have the means and would rather set it and forget it. But in your research, be careful to look at deductible amounts as well as annual spending limits. As with most insurance types, you can lower your monthly payment with a higher deductible, but too low an annual spending limit could leave you with a tough decision in an emergency.
For those of us who have multiple dogs, comprehensive coverage may be too much. But, in talking with Hannah Hayes, I learned about the accident and emergency options available. With two high-energy vizslas and a cocker spaniel, she plans for their annual expenses but sought out the extra comfort of knowing they’re covered should something go wrong. “With how much I hunt, it’s only a matter of time before something goes wrong, and having that emergency and accident coverage takes one worry out of my mind when I’m out there.” It costs her approximately $10 per dog per month and covers emergency testing, treatment, hospitalization and so on.
For context of costs without insurance, my first wirehair had a penchant for breaking her canine teeth, a product of her neurosis and disdain for her kennel. Each tooth repair cost approximately $2,500 out of pocket. That’s almost double the average mortgage payment in the U.S., according to the most recent census. But who can put a price tag on a good grouse dog?
How Does it Work?
Most policies are reimbursement only, so have that credit card ready. Go to the appointment or emergency vet, get the treatment your four-legged family member needs, pay for it upfront, then file a claim with your pet insurance provider by uploading the receipt to their online portal. It’s that simple. Some policies even come with ready-built apps for your phone, and claim submission is just a few clicks away and can be done before leaving the office parking lot.
Desiree Stormont, avid bird dogger and owner of two German shorthairs, had this to say about her recent experiences after the sudden emergency treatment and loss of her griffon: “I’ve used it often enough that I don’t even think twice. Every time I have a claim, I get the check in the mail before my next credit card statement shows up.”
This is a powerful position to be in when your dog needs care. Knowing that a significant portion – or all – of the financial side of the equation is covered helps level emotions in already trying times. And, as Desiree notes after recently losing her beloved wirehaired pointing griffon, Rupert, in a medical emergency, “It was such a relief to not have the money debate with my husband. We knew we were covered and were able to focus solely on getting him the best care possible, even through the end.” Desiree went on to share that paying out of pocket without the insurance backing would’ve put her family in debt by several thousand dollars.
Things to Consider
With a buffet of options that also impact month-to-month pricing, it’s important to keep an eye on the variables. In addition to choosing between simple accident or emergency coverage versus something more comprehensive, you’ll also need to shop among providers with various limits and exclusions.
Some outfits accept pre-existing conditions – however, most don’t. Many have payout timelines that are very quick. But failing to do your research on who pays their claims in a timely manner could mean you’re left holding the bill for a while. Additionally, one provider has a six-month waiting period before cruciate ligament injury coverage kicks in. This won’t be a big deal for a house pet, but six months in the grouse and woodcock woods is a long time to gamble.
Additionally, it’s important to review co-insurance structure, annual limits, and lifetime limits. Some policies have neither, or both, or a smattering of all three. It’s provider- and policy-specific as to what applies where. A co-insurance policy would include you as the customer covering a percentage of the costs post-deductible (usually 20%). Annual and lifetime limits represent the maximum payout a provider will issue on both an annual basis and over the course of your dog’s lifetime. Finally, look out for a listed insurable age limit. For example, Nationwide won’t issue pet insurance to dogs over age 10.
There’s so much unknown in the realm of our dogs and veterinary care that it can feel like the pet insurance piece only adds murkier layers. That said, the peace of mind of knowing your financial accessibility to quality care is covered certainly makes some of those decisions easier. I’ve yet to be faced with a treatment plan I couldn’t afford in the moment, but we all know that the more we hunt, the more likely it is to happen.
There’s also the old adage about the cost of a dog – we all know the cheapest moment comes the day we bring them home. Anyone with a bird dog should keep a list of close-by vets on hand when hunting and traveling. And with that, everyone should have a plan for how they’ll pay for that care if it’s ever needed.
Emily Spolyar is an avid upland hunter and recently purchased pet insurance for her two bird dogs. “Every time I let my dogs loose in the field, I’m holding my breath a bit, knowing there’s a chance they could get hurt doing what they live for. Pet insurance helps give me a bit more peace of mind knowing that if, or more likely when, accidents happen, I have a plan for their medical care. I’ve seen how quickly expenses can add up in emergencies and I want to be as prepared as I can be, from first aid care to financial planning, and as of recently, that now includes pet insurance,” she said.
Some choose to self-insure, and for others pet insurance is the fastest route. Either way, we owe it to our bird dogs to give them the best possible care when they need it. They give us their all every time we walk a cover. The least we can do is ensure we’ve got their back in times of need.