Does your Burmese python have anorexia? Put aside £790. For the cocker spaniel that swallowed a turkey baster on Christmas Day? £1,600. And helping a cockatoo with respiratory problems? Almost £500.
Vets’ bills are expensive— and not only for some of these unusual examples as supplied by the Association of British Insurers.
Almost 40 per cent of all households in the UK have a furry or feathered friend, and the everyday costs of treating poorly pets’ ailments can quickly run into thousands of pounds. Yet the cost of insuring your pet against possible injury or illness can also be expensive (often ludicrously so).
I have four cats. They are pampered pets; simple moggies, but spoilt rotten. But the cost of feeding them prawns and the odd sachet of Gourmet Perle cat food pales into insignificance compared with my monthly pet insurance bill.
Cover for my four elderly cats — aged 16, 15 and two 14-year-olds — costs me almost £4,000 a year. Ouch.
Admittedly, this is at the higher end of the spectrum. The average annual cost of a pet insurance policy for one cat is £150, the Money Advice Service reports.
This might seem expensive, but so are vets’ bills — meaning the finances have worked in my favour so far. Last year, my oldest cat, Mishka, had a stomach inflammation that was initially thought to be cancer. Umpteen tests and more than £3,000 later, the vet found the cat had pancreatitis.
The year before that, Plum, the 15-year-old, had a slipped disc and went in for a three-night stay with an MRI scan thrown in. The total bill was close to £3,500.
In both cases my insurer, Tesco Bank, paid up promptly and in full. The cats are only going to get older, sicker and more expensive — so I will keep paying to insure them.
However, one friend with an 11-year-old Labrador cancelled her pet insurance when the premium leapt to £300 a month a couple of years ago — just for the one dog. Now, she faces monthly bills of about £700 for her pooch’s regular medications, treatments and a prescription diet, plus any unexpected hospital visits on top. “She’s worth everything of course, but would-be dog owners really need to set up a dedicated savings account,” she says.
Few people seem to realise how expensive caring for a pet can be. Only 30 per cent of the 8.5m dog owners in the UK insure their pets, falling to 16 per cent for the UK’s 7.5m cat owners, the ABI reports.
At the same time, vets’ fees are rising, not least because of the wider range of pet medical treatments that are available. Last year, the average claim for pet insurance rose from £721 to £757. UK pet owners made 932,000 insurance claims overall in 2016, according to the ABI, with insurers paying out a total of £706m — a 7 per cent increase on 2015.
Even so, I was obviously keen to reduce my total monthly bill of £320 (for this, I am covered for potential vets’ bills of up to a maximum £4,000 for the two oldest and £7,500 for the youngest per pet, per year).
Tesco Bank said its premiums were assessed “on an annual basis and prices can go up or down depending on a range of factors, including vet fee costs, age, health and breed of the pet”. Fair enough.
But what if I shopped around? I asked comparison website MoneySuperMarket.com if it could help find me a better deal.
Part of the issue with moving pet insurers, I was told, is that most will not cover pets’ pre-existing conditions. This means if I switched the policies on my two eldest cats, I’d be picking up the tab if Mishka’s pancreatitis flared up again.
For the two younger cats, Fang and Stryker (who have as yet escaped serious illness) there is hope. Moneysupermarket found two deals: a lifetime policy from Animal Friends at just over £60 a month for both cats; and a similar policy from Legal & General for just over £86 per month (lifetime policies are designed to cover long-term and recurring conditions).
However, while I had provided the cats’ medical histories to get this quote, I had not specified where they lived. Like car insurance, your postcode plays a large part in the level of your monthly premium. Living in central London with a vet in Islington means I will always pay more than the national average.
“Certain areas of the country and those in London end up paying more, and that’s down to vet fees,” says Karen Howells-Lee of the Insurance Emporium, a general insurer. “But you’re very unlikely to move house because your pet is unwell.”
Indeed. But there are other ways you can trim the cost. First, check the excess. With my Tesco policy, I pay the first £50 of the vet’s bill, for example. But if you can afford a higher excess, this will bring your monthly premiums down.
Another is considering coinsurance (a similar principle, but usually measured as a percentage of what you will be prepared to cover). However, not all insurers offer this.
Changing your insurer might be relatively straightforward — but what about changing your vet? If you feel your bills are unjustifiably high, you can complain to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons*. I have remained loyal to my local vet, and received great service, so I am unwilling to switch.
And that monthly premium? Taking the “London weighting” into account, the savings were negligible so the cats and I decided to stay with Tesco. Fang has since developed a nasty skin rash, so goodbye to his clean bill of health. We will be off to the vet again next week . . . let’s hope my pet insurance policy will once again prove its worth.
Hugo Greenhalgh is editor of FT Wealth Magazine
*Article has been amended to correct the title of The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons
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