Over the last few days I have been privy to what I’ll describe as a “lively discussion” on a veterinary ethics mailing list. One vet on this list commented that she felt that more veterinarians should encourage pet owners to carry pet health insurance policies. She was frustrated by the number of animals she sees euthanized for financial reasons. Other veterinarians responded that health insurance policies are a waste of money: owners are likely to pay out much more over the course of the animal’s life than they will regain in payouts. After all, the insurance company has to make money.
There are several ways of looking at this issue. One is to argue that the question is not whether a pet health insurance policy saves an owner money, but whether it saves the animal’s life. Does it matter if the owner spends $2000 over ten years, so long as the necessary $1500 is available when the dog is hit by a car? Who is the veterinarian advocating for — the owner or the pet?
Of course, even if a pet insurance policy costs more than it returns, it may still have a benefit. Many people have trouble saving money for “just in case” scenarios, and a policy makes sure the money is available when it’s needed. And of course, even if you’re an excellent saver, your pet may have an unexpected health crisis before you’ve had time to save enough to cover it.
I feel that the real problem, though, is that so many people just don’t realize how much veterinary care can cost, particularly because their own health insurance shields them from the true cost of human medical care. Veterinarians can be hesitant to broach these issues with new owners; after all, discussing finances is always awkward, particularly when you tell someone that you might end up charging them a great deal of money some day. But I think veterinarians do owners a disservice to withhold this information. Far too many owners are deeply shocked by the cost of care when their animal has a broken leg, and are completely unprepared to find the money. I don’t know how many of them would have saved some money just in case if they had known, but they should at least have been given the chance.
As I said on the mailing list, I imagine a poster in a veterinary clinic:
Pet insurance: $20/month
One broken leg repair: $3000
Stomach bloat/twist surgery: $4000
Serious "hit by car" patient: $5000
Knowing you will always be able to afford your pet's emergency
medical care: priceless
The more I think about it, the more I realize how very little information is out there about the effectiveness of pet health insurance in saving animal lives. I propose a study. In two veterinary clinics, record the number of euthanasia decisions influenced by financial reasons for several months. (This would be difficult to do, but I think possible, if one could get owner cooperation.) Also record the number of insurance claims submitted through each clinic. (These claims usually require a veterinarian’s signature, so should be easy to track.) Then provide information, using handouts or posters, about pet health insurance in one of the clinics. Record the same data for several more months, and look for changes.
But even without evidence that providing information about costs and payment options is effective, I think it is part of a veterinarian’s job to educate owners about the responsibilities of pet ownership. Finding ways to afford health care is part of that. Provide owners with the information about costs, and let them make their own decisions about how to prepare for the worst.