You've just received an unexpectedly large veterinary bill, or maybe an animal has somehow found its way into your life. To ensure your pet's health, you need to budget for its care. Pet insurance is one of the shrewdest investments you can make.

Pets are so loyal and so low-maintenance that it's easy to forget how fragile and mortal even the strongest pets can be. Just ask the conscientious Rottweiler owner who walks her dog daily, feeds him the right food, treats him with care and kindness, and wakes up one day to find a sluggish 8-year-old companion whom subsequent tests detect is suffering from cancer. She's now faced with the prospect of amputating his leg before the cancer spreads to more vital parts of his body. It's an awful proposal to consider.

Invest in a Wellness Plan
A wellness plan – which is really just a frequent-buyer program – saves money on the treatments a conscientious pet owner would buy anyway. There's a nominal sign-up fee, then $20-25 monthly premium (depending on whether your pet is a dog or a cat, and whether it's older than six months when you enroll it.) For that you get discounted examinations, blood tests, a break on regular vaccinations and teeth cleanings that are almost worth the price of the plan on their own. The literature also boasts "unlimited" visits, which hopefully no pet owners abuse.

The largest privately owned veterinary practice in the United States operates inside one of the two largest pet store chains, and offers various types of wellness plans. It's billed as the archetypal ounce of prevention. After all, it's far better to bring your seemingly healthy pet in for a series of scheduled routine checkups than to wait for something frightening and frighteningly expensive to happen.

Veterinary Clinics Enjoy Profits
At this point the skeptical consumer asks, "What's in it for them?" Veterinary clinics don't stay in business by giving their services away. Even with pet wellness plans, they aren't. The clinics are still enjoying a healthy markup, and using the power of volume to earn themselves what will presumably be patients-for-life. A $25 payment, even in a month when your pet has no reason to visit the vet, is still probably going to be cheaper in the long run than an unplanned visit to a different vet.

Of course, some individual pets are healthier than others. Some breeds are predisposed to conditions that different breeds aren't. Bulldogs are susceptible to breathing problems and infections, while older domestic shorthairs succumb relatively often to chronic renal failure. That's why wellness plan providers offer plans at increased premiums for mature dogs and cats. The result is similar care for a higher price, which stems from two economic truths. First, older dogs and cats are close to death. Because such pets have shorter lifespans, the wellness plan providers have less time in which to make their money.

The Bottom Line
There's a difference between a wellness plan as outlined above and actual pet insurance, with deductibles and everything. The latter service is offered by formally designated insurance brokers. One major underwriter brands its insurance with the name of America's most famous non-profit organization devoted to animal welfare. A competitor bills itself as the only national company offering comprehensive pet health insurance. For prices similar to what the wellness plan providers offer, this insurer offers the following:

  • 90% bill coverage, beyond exam fees
  • Unlimited payouts
  • Preventative and therapeutic nutrition
  • No extra charges for chronic conditions.

You can find these plans through various independent clinics, or go the other way around and contact the insurer to find out which clinics it does business with.