Employers offer pet health care as perk

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As pets live longer, owners are paying for more visits to the veterinarian and costly prescription diets.

Even routine care has become more expensive, said Rolan Tripp, a La Mirada, Calif., founder of animalbehavior.net, a Web site devoted to helping people resolve animal behavior problems. He remembers when it used to cost $100 to get a dog spayed. That simple procedure can cost as much as $700 today.

But one of the biggest reasons for the demand for pet insurance is a spate of medical breakthroughs that can save pets’ lives but take big bites out of owners’ bank accounts. For instance, it is now common to treat animal cancer with chemotherapy, but the cost can make a pet owner howl.

Hollis Younger of Bethesda has racked up $40,000 in pet medical expenses over the past two decades. For owners like her, paying a fraction of that for insurance might make sense.

“People’s pets are kind of like their kids,” said Ms. Younger, who said she has owned six dogs since 1990. “They’re going to pay, whatever needs to be done.”

Ms. Younger remembered her “miracle” dog with tears in her eyes as she recalled all the good times they had together. She would have done anything to save her pet, but she couldn’t afford the $8,000 price tag to cure Alice’s encephalitis, which left the Airedale terrier blind and paralyzed.

Her pet insurance covered the bulk of the medical bills so Ms. Younger could focus on Alice, who lived four more years.

“I would’ve borrowed the money. I would’ve given them my credit card - whatever,” she said. “I think that’s how it works for a lot of people.”

Michelle Katz isn’t one of those people. The Montgomery County health care savings specialist, who hosts a public-access cable show called “Today’s Health,” said insurers use “scare tactics” to market pet policies.

Insurance might make sense for high-risk animals that are prone to illness, but not for the vast majority of healthy pets, she said. Many people, including herself, can’t afford an extra insurance payment right now, she said.

Others say animal insurance offers a safety net so owners can treat their pets for medical problems without going broke. Some owners panic when their pets get sick, and the last thing they should worry about is the price of a kidney transplant or an MRI, Mr. Stallings said.

“What pet insurance does is it allows the owner and vet to focus on care and not cost,” he said.

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