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A black cat steps out of a black soft-sided cat carrier

Pet insurance for cats is really important, but did you know far fewer cats are insured than dogs? Photo by JaneA Kelley

In the cat-related Facebook groups I’m in, it seems like someone asks a question about pet insurance at least once a week. “Pet insurance for cats: is it worth it?” is the most typical question I see. And my answer to that question is, “100 percent yes, it’s worth it, and here’s why.”

Back in 2012, when my sweet Dahlia had to go to the emergency vet for respiratory distress, which was the beginning of a week of specialist visits, biopsies, and having fluid drained from her chest that ultimately had a sad ending, I had no idea how I was going to pay for it. I was lucky to qualify for Care Credit, and the generosity of my community enabled me to pay for the rest.

After all was said and done, and I’d had a chance to at least do some initial grieving, my then-best friend suggested I look into pet insurance for my remaining cats. I looked at several companies and found myself more confused than when I started, so I just threw up my hands and forgot about it.

When I moved to Seattle in 2013, my first job was at a pet insurance company contact center. Through my training, I learned a lot about the company’s policy, insurance lingo, and the pet insurance industry in general. I also learned the customer side of the policy by filing claims for Thomas and Bella. So today, I am going to tell you what I’ve learned about pet insurance for cats, and the things you need to know before you settle on a policy–and as an extra bonus, I’m going to do it in language you don’t have to be a lawyer to understand!

The last time I wrote about pet insurance here on Paws and Effect was 2017, and it’s long past time for an updated post, so here we go!

Oh, wait! Before I get started, I offer this disclaimer: I live in the United States, and my pet insurance policy is with a carrier that operates in the U.S. and Canada. Any remarks I make about other types of insurance such as human health insurance, homeowners insurance, and auto insurance, are based on my understanding of how these companies operate in the U.S. All this information is true, to the best of my knowledge, as of May 5, 2024.

What pet insurance for cats is

Pet insurance, like all insurance, is protection from risk. For example, if you own your home, you have insurance to protect you from the risk that your home may be damaged or destroyed. If you have a car or motorcycle, you have insurance to protect you from the risk of paying to repair your car after it was stolen and stripped or for the medical costs of people injured in a car wreck that was your fault. Likewise, pet insurance is protection from the risk of not being able to pay for expensive treatment your cat may need in order to save her life or manage a chronic illness through your kitty’s old age.

Pet insurance is property insurance. In the United States, pets are legally considered property–yes, this sucks, and I don’t like it, either. That means pet insurance acts more like homeowners insurance or auto insurance than human health insurance. In fact, at the pet insurance company where I worked, we all had to get property and casualty insurance licenses.

What pet insurance for cats is not

Pet insurance, for cats or dogs, is not an investment. You don’t want a return on investment with your pet insurance any more than you want a return on your investment with your homeowners insurance (your house burned down) or your auto insurance (your catalytic converter was stolen and the robbers smashed all your windows).

Pet insurance is not like human health insurance. If you have good health insurance, you’re largely insulated from the true cost of your own medical care because all you need to pay is a copay and you have an employer who pays at least a substantial majority of your monthly cost (and of course, your share is deducted from your paycheck). There is no “in network” and “out of network” with pet insurance policies, so you can go to any vet you want.

Pet insurance is not “liability for your pet” insurance. I had a couple of callers ask me if that’s what we offered–they were looking for liability coverage in case their dog bit someone. But pet insurance is strictly health insurance. I can’t think of a similar scenario for cats, but I do want you to know that pet insurance won’t offer liability coverage.

A black cat hides under a navy blue fleece blanket. Only her nose is poking out.

I realized Bella wasn’t feeling well because of changes in her behavior. My pet insurance covered a good portion of the cost for her diagnostic tests and vet care. Photo by JaneA Kelley

A pet insurance story: Bella

Last summer, my sweet Bella wasn’t feeling too great. She wasn’t moving as much, she’d stopped having the zoomies, and she was missing jumps she used to make with ease. I’ve shared Bella’s health story in a previous post, but this time I want to share the pet insurance side.

Our first invoice for this condition, back in June of 2023, had a subtotal of $521.44. This covered an exam, X-rays (and an interpretation by a radiologist), and some medication to take home, as well as a case of canned cat food from my vet’s retail store. I paid the vet the full amount and submitted my pet insurance claim the next day.

Below is my claim outcome letter, with identifying information redacted.

A pet insurance claim outcome letter, showing what was paid and what was not.

So now I’m going to break down what this all means:

  • Condition(s): this is the illness I filed the claim for, in this case “difficulty with mobility, difficulty jumping.” Also listed is “other”; this applies to invoice items not directly involved with the claim. In my case, that would be the case of cat food. My pet insurance does not cover non-prescription foods.
  • Invoice subtotal: this is the total cost before sales tax is added in (there’s no sales tax for vet care where I live, but cat food is subject to sales tax). You’ll see that the company has divided the subtotal between “difficulty with mobility” ($398.00) and “other” ($123.44).
  • Not covered: the next column lists any costs that the pet insurance company will not pay. You will see that all “other” expenses are in the “not covered” column. That’s the cat food plus the veterinary exam fee.
  • Coinsurance applied (10%): Coinsurance is a fixed percentage of the cost you are responsible for. In my case, the coinsurance is 10%, meaning I have to pay 10% of all covered costs. The total covered cost are $398.00, so my 10% coinsurance is $39.80.
  • Deductible applied: The deductible is the amount you have to pay before the pet insurance pays. In my case, my pet insurance deductible is $250 per cat. The remaining deductible for this condition was $67, and that was deducted from what the insurance would pay.
  • [Pet insurance company] paid: This is the amount my pet insurance company paid to me, $290.45.
  • Your portion: This column shows what I’m responsible for in both covered and non-covered expenses.
  • Remaining deductible: This column shows how much, if any, deductible I have remaining for this condition.

You can also see that the claim outcome letter explains why things are not covered and shares the relevant text from the policy so you can read the information for yourself. For example, my pet insurance doesn’t cover exam fees. The other item that wasn’t covered was the cat food, and again, the insurance company has shared the relevant part of the policy. Speaking of things that aren’t covered …

Why doesn’t pet insurance cover …?

What specific things will and won’t be covered for your cat depends entirely on your cat’s health history, so there is no way anyone who is not a claims adjuster could guarantee coverage. That’s why you’ll hear sales and customer service representatives saying things that sound shady and evasive such as, “I can’t guarantee coverage for any specific issue for any specific pet” or “That is a condition that could be eligible for coverage, depending on your cat’s medical history.” It’s not because they want to jerk you around, it’s because they are not legally allowed to say anything that might be taken as a guarantee of coverage.

That said, there are some things that are generally excluded from coverage, and these are:

  • Pre-existing conditions: “Pre-existing” is not the same as “pre-diagnosed.” Pre-existing simply means “showing signs or symptoms prior to enrollment or during the waiting period.” It does not require a formal diagnosis. I remember one customer who was really upset that she took her cat to the vet the day after the illness waiting period ended and the cat was diagnosed with cancer due to a golf ball-sized tumor on his head. Her claim was denied, and I had to tell her that even though her cat only got the diagnosis recently, the size of the tumor indicated it had been growing for a lot more than one day.
  • Exam fees: The reason pet insurance doesn’t cover exam fees, I think, relates to the idea of routine expenses versus non-routine expenses. When you take your cat to the vet for a checkup, you pay an exam fee. You know you’re going to pay an exam fee every time you go to the vet. But if your routine checkup becomes less routine, that’s where the pet insurance steps in: they’ll pay for the X-rays, the meds, the surgery, etc., but you’re on the hook for the exam fee.
  • Non-medical things: This includes non-prescription cat foods, toys and treats, beds, litter  and litter boxes, carriers, supplements/nutraceuticals (unless prescribed in the course of treating an illness/injury, such as the Adequan I’m giving Bella for her arthritis, which my pet insurance is covering).
A black cat sits in "cat loaf" pose on a blue chair cushion.

Bella’s feeling much better these days. She’s having her regular nightly zoomies, her appetite is good, and her purr motor is louder than ever! Photo by JaneA Kelley

How to find a pet insurance policy that works for you and your cat

Once you decide you’re going to look for pet insurance coverage, the first thing you should do is figure out what you want in a pet insurance policy. You also want to think about the deductible you can afford, which is going to be a balance between how much money you could get together in an emergency and a deductible that makes the monthly premium affordable.

Also consider the following:

  • Cats are living longer than ever, and now that they do, the occurrence of “old cat diseases” such as hyperthyroidism, chronic renal failure, and arthritis is rising, too. And no, this is not because cats are getting sicker because of blah blah toxic pet food blah blah vaccinations blah blah; it’s because back in the bad old days, most cats didn’t live long enough to get these diseases.
  • The cost of veterinary care has risen exponentially over the past 10 years or so, driven primarily by private equity firms buying vet hospitals and demanding that profit rather than pet welfare take priority, and by huge corporations (Mars, I’m looking at you because you own BluePearl, VCA, and Banfield) buying up all the clinics in any given area and then driving prices up for their profit rather than pet welfare). I don’t see this trend changing any time in the near future.

Beware of pet insurance ‘review’ sites

It seems like every time I’m on social media, I run into some ad for “pet insurance company reviews! Find out which pet insurance company is best for you!” And they’re from respected publications like Forbes, so you’d think they’d be legit, right?

Wrong. Most pet insurance review sites are pay-to-play, meaning that the pet insurance company has to pay the publication to participate in these “pet insurance review” articles. Every time I’ve followed that link, I’ve found maybe six pet insurance companies listed, and I know for a fact that a lot of companies (including the one where I have my pet insurance) are not included on these lists.

If you want a truly impartial roundup of the benefits and “gotchas” of every pet insurance policy available in the U.S. and Canada, I strongly recommend Pet Insurance University. Like Paws and Effect, Pet Insurance University is a passion project. Frances Wilkerson, DVM, a veterinarian whose goals are to make life better for pets and their people, and make pet insurance simpler for not only her clients but for all people, is the one who runs the site. She doesn’t run ads, she doesn’t work for a pet insurance company, and none of the links on Pet Insurance University are affiliate links. I really respect Dr. Wilkerson’s integrity and knowledge–thank you so much for providing this vital website!

Pet insurance for cats: the last word

Okay, so now that this post is 2,100 words long and I think I’ve come to a reasonable stopping point, that’s what I’m going to do. I definitely want to write more about pet insurance for cats, so this is the first in a multi-part series about pet insurance. What questions do you have about pet insurance? I’d love to answer them in future posts on pet insurance, so be sure to leave your question in the comments below!

Meanwhile, really, get pet insurance if you can possibly afford it. I know my pet insurance has saved me from “financial euthanasia” more than once, and when I worked at the pet insurance company, I took at least five or six calls each day from people whose pets were having emergencies that they couldn’t afford to treat without our help. I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to learn about pet insurance and use pet insurance for my cats.