Of all of the things I write about, one subject gets the biggest response by far. Pets.

It’s hard to overstate how much people in the UK adore their pets. And woe betide anyone who makes a non-pet-friendly comment, as I found when discussing with friends how much I hate the yappy terrier that lives behind my flats. The conclusion I reached was one yapping terrier is more popular than 10 jaded newspaper columnists – at least according to my friendship group.

The numbers of pets in the UK are bonkers too. According to the latest report from the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), there are 11 million pet dogs, the same number of cats and 1.1 billion rabbits alone in the UK, with over half of all adults owning a pet 53%).

I don’t want to ruin your day, but when pets get sick, it can be very, very expensive. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has just announced a review in to the veterinary services market in the UK. The review has come about after a number of concerns were raised about the £2 billion industry and the prices charged by some vets, which can sometimes go well over £10,000 for some treatments.

The obvious solution to this is to take out pet insurance. But the insurance industry has also been controversial over the years and many policies are simply too expensive for people to afford. But there are affordable options out there too.

How do I avoid hefty vet bills?

Because we don’t like to think about our own health issues or those of our pets, we tend not the check out the options available to us until something goes wrong. But doing a bit of research in advance can save you a fortune.

Ideally, you’d do this before buying a particular pet and breed, so you can have a realistic picture about what the future might hold and potential costs. For example, pugs notoriously suffer from a range of health conditions in relation to their breeding. In fact, the Royal Veterinary College suggests that they can no longer be considered to be a ‘typical dog’ due to their extreme body shape. Pug owners will need to take out both a good insurance policy and maybe save some money for other costs too.

Of course, most people aren’t going to do this research before they bring a new pet in to the family. So if you’ve already committed, here’s what to do.

First things first, get to know the vets in your area. Pop in and say hello, find out about registering or getting a few prices for basic health issues like injections and chipping and compare with other vets in your area. You may want to keep the vet closest to you handy for emergencies, but a cheaper one for your main health visits.

Once you’ve built up a relationship with a vet, ask them if they accept payments in installments just in case you get hit by a hefty bill that isn’t covered by insurance further down the line. If your pet has a propensity towards certain medical conditions, you can also ask about preventative measures and general things you can do to keep your dog healthy.

You may find that your preferred vet has a basic service for things like injections, worming, vaccinations and more that can be split over a 12-month period.

Of course, you can take some preventative action at home too. Brushing your dog or cat’s teeth can help maintain its health in more ways that simply avoiding gum and oral hygiene. And on the off chance we have a heatwave in the UK, bear in mind that walking your dog in temperatures over 24C can be bad for your pet (never walk dogs in temperatures over 28C). Oh, and without putting too fine a point on it, a fat pet is an unhealthy pet.

What if you can’t afford vets bills or pet insurance?

Firstly, if you can’t afford expensive bills or insurance, then still speak to your local vet to see if they have any tips or suggestions.  Vet’s fees vary considerably. It can be difficult to know if you’re being overcharged, so a good starting point is to check with an insurer how much they’d be willing to cover for various standard treatments. These are usually specified in the policy limits online.

If money is tight and you can’t afford a good insurance policy, buy what you can. But I’d suggest you try to put aside some extra cash each month to cover unexpected bills. You can set up an online account easily and savings interest rates are pretty good at the moment too.

There are vet advice lines and apps out there, which can be a good way to establish if non-emergency treatment is needed or not. FirstVet and Joii are often mentioned by the people who contact me, but there are a range of options out there [editors note – I’ve not used these!]

Some readers have mentioned using pet pharmacies to obtain drugs much cheaper than the ones on offer via the vet. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about recommending this option. There are a range of online pharmacies for humans out there too, of which some are great and some are decidedly dodgy. If you do go down this route, do some research, check review sites and look for UK based companies.

Your vet may also be aware of any subsidised or support services in your local neighborhood if cash is really tight. The RSPCA may be able to offer advice and means-tested support if you need help with your pet’s medical treatment. Fabulously, the Blue Cross run pet food banks too (don’t forget to donate if you can afford it). And many charities supporting older people or those who may be more vulnerable can help you collect the items you need too.

Finally, you might want to check to see if there are teaching or veterinary hospitals in your area that offer cheaper emergency treatments.

What you need to know when buying a pet insurance policy

Pet insurance varies considerably like all insurance products, so it makes sense to buy the best one you can afford – but that doesn’t always mean the most expensive.

First of all, don’t just snap up the one on sale at the vets. Do some research first and find one that best suits your needs. But before you get going, you need to do a bit of research about your pet, the breed and common health complaints, so you know what the future might hold. Yes, this is no fun. But at least you know what you need to factor in when it comes to both your policy and your budget.

What are the different types of pet insurance?

There are four main types of pet insurance:

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

The top of the range type of pet insurance is a lifetime policy which covers your pet for treatment for life. Conversely, I hear the most complaints about these policies because – like all forms of insurance – there are catches. For example, your pet may be covered for life, but only for a set amount of money per condition, each year.

The policies cover you for new illnesses and accidents, but like people insurance, not for pre-existing conditions. The reason these policies are the best is because they will pay for ongoing treatment as long as your insurance policy is renewed each year. These policies cover multiple illnesses, so your prize koi carp could be treated for two or more separate illnesses in a year, though each illness will have a maximum policy limit.

Maximum benefit policies will pay out a fixed amount for each potential medical condition your pet might have (also capped). However, once you’ve hit that limit that’s your lot, even if the condition is ongoing. If you’re under the claim limit, the policy can continue to pay out after the first year of claiming.

Time limited policies work by setting a fixed monetary limit for each medical treatment. The policy will only cover you for a set time period 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.

Accident only cover is the cheapest type of policy and does exactly what it says on the tin. So accidents are in, many medical conditions are (generally) out. Look for policies that offer emergency treatment for some illnesses too.

Common complaints

Most complaints about pet insurance involve ongoing medical treatments, disputes over whether a ‘new’ condition is related to an older one and ‘non-disclosure’ – where the insurer feels you haven’t disclosed a previous medical condition. So just like people, basically.

That old insurance truism abounds with pet insurance. Terms and conditions are sometimes subjective and open to interpretation. If your insurer is relying on unclear or ambiguous terms to reject a claim, you should complain. Insurers will have their own panel of vet experts to refer to when considering a claim. If they disagree with your vet’s assessment, then make a formal complaint.

You’re not going to get experimental treatments covered by your own medical insurance. So it’s not surprise to learn that I’ve seen some quite wacky treatments recommended by vets. Again, as with humans, treatments for pets need to be generally accepted as effective and practical. Check with your insurer to find out if the treatment is approved before you pay for it up front.

Other things you might assume are covered may not be, like ‘preventative’ treatments. This can be anything from spaying, anti-flea treatments and grooming. Some policies will cover dental treatment though expect limitations on when the policy will pay out. The whole process of your pet giving birth may also be excluded.

What if you are unhappy with a claim?

If you need to make a claim, speak to the insurer and tell them about the vet’s costs that you’ve been quoted asap. Some vets may recommend ‘experimental’ treatments that aren’t recognized by other vets or insurers and therefore might not be covered. I’d make sure you look into what every treatment involves and how it helps the underlying medical condition.

The insurer has to send you their decision on the claim – and a final decision in writing if you complain. You can ask your vet to get involved too if the insurer is ignoring their advice.

Ultimately, you can take your complaint to the free Financial Ombudsman Service. The ombudsman will look at your complaint impartially and often overturns claims decisions.

Featured in Times Money Mentor – Martyn James


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