Dog care — easier than Obamacare

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Times columnist David Lazarus' dog Teddy is now covered. Pet insurance can be a smart bet for active dogs. (Ikuko Lazarus / May 29, 2014)

It tells you everything you need to know about the U.S. healthcare system that you can get more comprehensive coverage for a dog than you can for a human being.

I found this out when I delved recently into the nearly $600-million pet insurance market to see about covering our dog, Teddy, a 2-year-old golden retriever/Rottweiler mix that we brought home a few months ago from the West Los Angeles Animal Shelter.

Teddy's our first dog; my wife and I have always been cat people. Since our kitties stay inside (mostly), we figure it's a bad bet to spend hundreds of dollars annually per cat on pet-insurance premiums.

But Teddy ventures multiple times a day into the great outdoors, where bacteria, viruses, cars, falls, snake bites and God knows what else are conspiring to do him harm.

Like most pet owners, we wouldn't hesitate to do whatever's necessary to help our newest family member. But we took a recent $150 visit to the vet for a minor ear infection as a wake-up call about protecting ourselves financially.

Dr. Ed Jordan, a vet at Melrose-La Brea Animal Hospital, told me that far too few pet owners plan ahead for major medical problems.

"Your dog gets hit by a car. He needs $7,000 worth of work. It's that simple," he said.

There are about 1 million pet-insurance policies in the United States and Canada, according to the North American Pet Health Insurance Assn. The vast majority of that coverage is for dogs.

The industry group breaks down pet insurance into three main categories: Accidents only, accidents and illness, and accidents, illness and wellness.

The average premium last year for accidents-only coverage was $166.25 for dogs and $136.26 for cats.

Accidents and illness premiums ran $456.98 a year for dogs and $289.99 for cats, and comprehensive coverage cost $1,178.13 for dogs and $743.11 for cats.

More than 95% of people who buy pet insurance opt for accidents-and-illness plans, according to the industry group.

There are some obvious differences between pet insurance and people insurance. For example, Anthem Blue Cross isn't going to want to know your breed when deciding rates.

But shopping for both forms of coverage can be very similar. Some tips:

Look around. There are about a dozen leading providers of pet insurance in the United States, each offering different types of coverage with different prices and different strings attached. As with human health insurance, it's not one size fits all.

The leading provider of pet insurance is Brea's Veterinary Pet Insurance, or VPI. It's been around since issuing its first policy to TV's Lassie (true fact) in 1982 and accounts more than half of all policies written.

"VPI was a pioneer in the industry," said Adam Fell, a company spokesman.

Other big, well-established providers include Pethealth and the Hartville Group, which says it's the "strategic partner" of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Read the fine print. Most pet-insurance policies don't cover preexisting conditions. But VPI's policies, for instance, also don't cover congenital problems present since birth and most hereditary problems. They also cap how much will be paid out in a single year.

Moreover, VPI uses a so-called benefit schedule that limits reimbursements for various treatments. Some vet bills thus might exceed the company's claim levels.

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