If there is one thing that defines us as a nation, it’s our obsession with pets. According to the latest research, almost two thirds of the population have a pet.

That’s 13 million dogs, 12 million cats, 1 million rabbits, 600,000 guinea pigs and 200,000 ferrets – and many, many others!

As a consequence, a large and evolving industry has grown up around pets, from designer outfits to specialist food retailers. The competition for certain breeds and types of pet has also led to spiraling prices and a worry spate of pet thefts. In addition, as lockdown ended and people started to go back to the office there’s been a major surge in demand for dog walkers and pet daycare. Many people are starting to report anxiety in their pets after the months of unadulterated attention that accompanied homeworking ended. Needless to say, pet therapy classes are apparently booming.

Which brings us to the most important pet expenses you’ll encounter – pet insurance and vet’s bills. Though many more policies have come on to the market in recent years, lots of people are put off by high prices or confusing contracts. Pet insurance varies considerably like all insurance products but it makes sense to buy the best one you can afford – but that doesn’t always mean the most expensive.

Pet insurance, the lowdown

There are four main types of pet insurance:

  • Lifetime cover
  • Maximum benefit cover
  • Time limited cover
  • Accident only cover

The best policy you can buy is a ‘lifetime’ policy, which covers your pet for treatment for life, though only for a set amount each year. These are the priciest policies but make the most sense for pet lovers.

Maximum benefit policies will pay out a capped or fixed amount for each potential medical condition your pet might have. You’ll be able to make claims up to the policy limit for each condition, but not beyond it. Time limited policies work in a similar way, but the policy will only cover you for a set time frame from the start of treatment (usually a year).  So unlike a maximum benefit policy, once you hit the maximum payout or cross the time deadline, the claim ends.

If you’re on a budget, an accident only policy is worth considering. As the name suggests, the policies will only cover you for genuine accidents not illnesses. But if money is tight, they can really help out if your pet is injured. Take time to read the policy though so understand what is being defined as an accident – and get the insurer to explain anything that isn’t clear. Pet theft cover is a new type of insurance and usually you have to purchase it separately.

A lot of the people I speak to don’t want to think about their pet getting ill, so leaving aside the costs of some basic injections and treatments, many people avoid speaking to a vet until something bad happens. I’d really encourage anyone with a pet to get to know their vet. The security of knowing that the surgery is there, its opening hours and where to go if you need emergency treatment is priceless – though I hope you never need to use it.

Speak to your vet before signing up to see if their fees are likely to be covered. There’s quite a lot of variation with vet’s fees – and if yours is pricey, check with the insurer how much they’d be willing to cover.

And finally, if you need to make a claim, speak to the insurer and tell them about the costs asap. Some vets may recommend ‘experimental’ treatments that aren’t recognised and might not be covered. I’ve seen dogs sent for hydrotherapy treatments that turned out to be frolicking in a paddling pool in a shed – for hundreds of pounds. So make sure you look into what every treatment involves and how it helps the underlying medical condition.

Martyn James is a leading consumer rights campaigner, TV and radio broadcaster and journalist.

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