How does pet insurance work and what does it cost?


Caring for a pet is just as important as caring for a family member for many of the tens of millions of pet owners in the United States. Owners would do anything to ensure their animals get healthy food, plenty of exercise, proper care while they’re away and, of course, access to necessary health care. But when a pet gets sick, staying on top of veterinarian bills can be a struggle.

Medications and surgeries for unexpected illnesses or injuries can add up quickly, all too often forcing some families to make difficult choices between their own financial health and the health of their pets. Like car insurance or human health insurance, pet insurance can be purchased to help offset some of the costs of a pet’s medical treatments and procedures, especially in the event of an emergency, but a lot of variability exists between insurance plans and individual experiences.

What is pet insurance?

Pet insurance is similar to other forms of insurance in that it can help protect you from going into debt due to unforeseen circumstances—in this case, due to medical bills for your pet. If your pet gets sick or injured, your pet insurance plan will reimburse you for a percentage of the costs covered by whatever insurance plan you choose. Depending on your plan, pet insurance might also pay back some of the costs associated with preventive care, like vaccines, alternative or complementary treatments and even cremation or burial services.

One of the biggest reasons families get pet insurance is for help managing sky-high vet bills. Paige Cerulli, a pet owner in Massachusetts, bought pet insurance for her first cat after working in a veterinary clinic—where she saw firsthand just how devastating vet bills could be.

“We’re not talking broken bones or emergency surgeries,” Cerulli says, even “simpler, more common conditions, like… a urinary blockage, could lead to bills that were thousands of dollars.”

She saw families wring their hands over how they would manage to pay for it all, and though she didn’t have any pets herself at the time, the experience stuck with her.

“I knew that once I did get pets, I would absolutely want a plan in place in case of a health issue like that,” Cerulli says.

How does pet insurance work?

As with human health insurance, you can choose from a variety of pet insurance plans based on what you expect your pet’s needs to be. Once you sign up, you’ll pay a monthly premium and are often required to pay out of pocket for all vet bills until you meet an annual deductible. After that, if something happens that’s covered by your insurance plan—your dog broke his leg, for example—you’d take him to the vet and submit your claim to your insurance company. If the treatment falls under the umbrella of your plan and you’ve met your deductible, the insurance company will pay you back a certain percentage of what you paid.

Unlike human health insurance, pet insurance companies almost never pay vets directly. Instead, you pay for all costs out of your own pocket first, and the company will reimburse you only after you submit a claim and it has been approved.

Having to front the money and chase down reimbursement can be two of the biggest downsides to pet insurance, but there are some benefits. Because veterinarians aren’t in any way involved in the insurance process, you get to choose which veterinary office you’d like to take your pet to, without worrying about whether the vet is “in-network” or an approved provider. Similarly, the kind of care your vet recommends likely won’t be influenced by what a third party is willing to pay for.

That being said, most pet insurance plans will have a long list of caveats on what they will and won’t cover. That’s because while the human health insurance industry is bound by certain laws and policies aimed at protecting consumers, pet insurance isn’t regulated to the same degree— or at all in some states. For example, unless you specifically purchase a wellness plan or pay extra on standard plans, pet insurance often doesn’t cover the cost of preventive care, like annual checkups or vaccinations. Payouts or reimbursements are generally limited to unexpected medical emergencies, injuries or illnesses. Pre-existing conditions are rarely covered.

Many newcomers to pet insurance are often surprised to find out there are many exceptions to coverage tacked onto plans. When Chicago pet owner Thalia Bruehl got her first dog, she knew that he had had hernia surgery when he was very young, but he was otherwise very healthy. She purchased pet insurance at the advice of her vet, but she grew frustrated when the insurance plan declined to reimburse her for costs she thought were covered by her plan.

“Any time we tried to get coverage … they would bring up this pre-existing condition,” Bruehl says, adding that this was the case even if an illness or injury was completely unrelated to his hernia. “I was paying a couple hundred dollars a year for insurance, and it had yet to cover anything at all.”

Bruehl dropped that initial plan and purchased pet insurance again after getting her second dog—this time with a different company. But even though her dog didn’t have any pre-existing conditions at all the second time around, she says she still encountered roadblocks.

“I still felt like I was on the phone fighting tooth and nail to get the very basic things covered,” Bruehl says.

It didn’t take long for her to stop this plan, too.

“It just felt, for me, that it wasn’t going to be worth it,” she says.

Bruehl says she worried about having to jump through such hurdles during traumatic situations. Having to be on the phone with the insurance company while grieving the death of her dog, she says, would simply be too upsetting.

Others, however, have had vastly different experiences. Denver-based pet owner Whitney Betlej, for example, says getting reimbursed for care for her two dogs has been relatively painless. She simply uploads a photo of the paid invoice from the vet’s office into an app, and within a week, she gets a statement outlining how much they’ll cover. The money is then quickly deposited directly into her account. Betlej says despite the deductible and monthly premiums, the plan has paid for itself every year.

“It has been a lifesaver,” Betlej says. “I tell everyone about it.”

These two experiences illustrate just how different plans can be.

What are the different types of pet insurance plans?

Pet insurance plans are as versatile as the pets they cover. Most companies, however, offer plans that fit somewhat into these four categories:

  • Accident-only: These plans typically only cover injuries or ailments related to accidents (like an unintentional poisoning or a broken leg), but not illnesses or preventive care. These plans tend to be the cheapest options.
  • Major medical: This is one of the most common types of plans and covers accidents and most unexpected illnesses.
  • Wellness plans: These plans cover preventive care and routine treatments, such as routine checkups, vaccines, flea and tick treatments and dental care.
  • Comprehensive plans: For more thorough coverage, these plans cover all of the above, as well as often some added perks, like lifetime coverage. As a result, these plans tend to be more expensive.

While these are the general categories, there’s a lot of variability from one company to the next. Some plans have caps on the amount of money you’re reimbursed, or they will set a limit on how long they will cover an ailment. Others will refuse to pay out for procedures, tests, or medicines if your pet is above or below a certain age or is a particular breed. It’s important to read through the policy carefully before purchasing any plan to make sure you know what is covered.

How much does pet insurance cost?

While the kind of coverage you get can influence how much certain plans cost, it’s not the only factor. Premiums can also vary based on things like how much you’re willing to pay for your deductible, the insurance company you use, where you live and the age and breed of your pet. Other factors—like whether there’s an annual maximum payout or if the plan offers lifetime coverage—can also significantly sway how much you pay from one month to the next.

Sample pet insurance plan price comparison



Healthy Paws


Monthly Premium





Annual Deductible





% of Eligible Costs Reimbursed





Annual Maximum Payout





Note: These figures are based on quotes provided for a Major Medical Coverage-type plan for a 5-year-old black labrador retriever based in Bloomington, Minnesota.

Tips for shopping for pet insurance

  1. Don’t wait until your pet is sick to get pet insurance. Most pet insurance companies won’t cover pre-existing conditions, and that includes certain ailments the pet has been treated for in the past. Too much of a medical history might mean the company won’t cover them at all.
  2. Get quotes from multiple companies, and carefully compare both prices and coverage. It takes some digging, but it is important to look beyond the monthly price tag and compare what treatments and procedures will be covered. It won’t matter if your premiums are low if the plan doesn’t cover what you need it to.
  3. Read reviews to find out more about the quality of the company’s customer service. If you experience something tragic with your pet, compassionate interactions with your pet insurance company can help keep an already stressful situation from becoming worse. Ask friends or family who have pet insurance what their experience has been with their insurance companies, or look up reviews from third-party sites online to see what you might expect in the event of an emergency from one company versus the next.
  4. Make sure you’re crystal clear on how much the deductibles will be and how the reimbursements will work. Does everything apply to the deductible or only certain expenses? What costs will be reimbursed and up to how much? Is there an annual or lifetime maximum the insurance company will pay? Understanding these things in advance can be helpful when you’re comparing one plan to another, as these costs might matter more to you than the monthly premiums in the end.
  5. Read the footnotes to find out what won’t be covered, whether there’s a waiting period, and any other exclusions and caveats. Like with any insurance plans, there can be a lot of fine print with pet insurance. In particular, find out whether there is a waiting period before you can file claims, as well as any exclusions that might pertain to your pet.
  6. Consider alternatives to pet insurance. Pet insurance might not be right for everyone. Many families, for example, choose to instead set aside money that would have gone to premiums into a savings or checking account in case their pets get injured or sick. Others choose to use healthcare-specific credit cards, such as CareCredit. If you don’t expect to get back in coverage what you paid for in premiums, then you might want to consider an alternative.