Conal Gregory: Record £706m paid out as the health of our pets comes first

When your pet needs treatment, you could face significant costs  Photo: Johnston Press
When your pet needs treatment, you could face significant costs Photo: Johnston Press
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When a pet needs treatment, the costs can be sky high and continue to escalate if ongoing veterinary care is required. Fortunately, pet insurance is available as the way to protect against the unexpected.

Yet, as with almost all forms of insurance, look carefully at the different levels of cover and alternative schemes offered. There are useful discounts to be obtained, notably if more than one pet is protected by the same insurer, as well as if a higher excess is accepted.

Contracts are usually annual and there are four types: accident only, one year, maximum benefit and for life. The latter will pay up to a prescribed limit every year even though it may be for the same condition. However, maximum benefit will pay a fixed sum for each accident or illness. Whilst annual policies are time limited, the accident only form excludes chronic conditions.

Do not expect a policy to pay for routine vet treatments, such as blood tests, flea prevention and vaccinations. Expect to pay higher premiums for pedigree breeds as they are more prone to genetic conditions.

Pets are more likely to be insured than individuals. According to Aviva, better known as Norwich Union, research of 1,600 people revealed:

24 per cent of parents with children under 18 years are likely to have pet cover

18 per cent have critical illness insurance

13 per cent have income protection.

This shows that the health of our pets is more highly regarded than our own. However, animal premiums are rising to reflect the increasing expense of treatment and frequency of claims. The Association of British Insurers says its members paid out a record £706m on pet claims last year, averaging £750 each. In 2015, claims of £657m were met, averaging £720 each.

In some situations, owners can end up paying thousands of pounds in vet costs to treat particular conditions and disorders.

Such treatment can continue for years which means the total cost can rise to over £10,000. In addition, as new methods of treatment and improved technologies are developed – such as more accurate scans and prosthetic limbs – care becomes even more expensive.

Direct Line reveals that the most expensive claims it received for vet expenses in 2016 were for blood disorders. It settled 80 per cent for between £200-4,000. Musculoskeletal disorders typically cover strains and sprains, arthritis and conditions associated with abnormal joint development (like hip dysplasia). It paid £100-3,800 for most such instances. Its third most expensive group of claims was for liver disorders where the insurer paid £200-3,500.

Prit Powar, head of pet insurance at Direct Line, said, “It is comforting to think vets can now do more to help our pets make a speedier recovery although it is no secret that vet bills are on the increase.”

Powar says that pet owners should realise that often conditions and hence costs can extend well beyond an initial year: “Treatment in some cases might be needed again for reoccurring issues, taking dogs way over a year to return to full health.

“Consequently, this means by the time treatment is no longer required, the total cost can be very expensive and in some cases over £7,000.”

Claims can be unusual. Last year they included one for a Burmese python which suffered from anorexia where the cost reached £790 for treatment. Two key exclusions are pre-existing conditions and behavioural problems.

If a budget plan is taken, not only will it offer a relatively low limit on the liability per condition but when it comes to renewal, insurers may impose a higher premium or special terms. It makes sense therefore to opt for a policy where insurance will cover for ongoing treatments beyond the year of the first claim.

Another factor to consider on choice of insurer is whether payment has to be made by the individual and a claim lodged subsequently or if the insurer will reimburse for any treatments directly.

M&S will do either depending upon the requirements of the veterinary practice. M&S offers three levels of cover: Essential up to £3,000 for each illness or injury for a maximum 12 months; Standard up to £4,000 with a limit of £1,000 for each separate illness or injury claim; and Premier up to £7,000 with no separate limits. The latter includes cover for behavioural conditions and complementary treatments.

Once a new pet has arrived, do not delay before taking out cover. Most insurers will accept liability for cats and dogs from eight weeks old.

There is also an upper age limit for policy commencement, which is generally nine years for dogs, but once covered, insurance can usually continue to any age. Do not under-estimate the cost of treatment as a claim for a cat with a common condition like diabetes now averages £1,060.

Last year Sainsbury’s Bank Pet Insurance calculated the lifetime costs on average of pet ownership. Its research showed £17,200 for a cat and £16,900 per dog. However, taking typical life expectancy into account, the annual cost of ownership was £1,028 and £1,183 respectively.

With no NHS for animals, insurance is crucial although the Blue Cross charity can help owners who can prove they are on particular means-tested benefits.

Many insurers need offer assistance by telephone. M&S, for example, includes unlimited such access to a veterinary nurse.

One factor that can be overlooked is if the pet owner is insured for any liability that arises from the animal causing an accident or attacking someone. Better policies include such a provision, usually up to £2m.

Such third party liability is important as many animals could easily leave a path and cause a traffic accident. A cyclist was awarded compensation of around £60,000 after suffering a head injury from falling, caused by becoming tangled in a dog lead. When comparing policies, check if discounts are available for:

Internet purchasing, which may be up to 15 per cent

Multi-pets, which frequently are five per cent

Other insurance products to recognise loyalty.

Probably the two largest pet cover providers are PetPlan, underwritten by Allianz, and Tesco, underwritten by RSA.

Pet owners should feel safe with both underwriters. Allianz was founded in Berlin in 1890 and purchased Cornhill in 1986. Today it is the largest insurance company in the world.

RSA is the result of a series of mergers which include London Assurance, Alliance Assurance and Royal Assurance, founded in 1720, 1824 and 1845 respectively. It is the 75th largest company quoted on the London Stock Exchange.

Jacqueline Graham, a 50-year-old microbiologist in the soft drinks industry, has two dogs, which she insures through Direct Line for £54 a month per pet.

Both are bulldogs, three-year-old Ruby and one year old Honey.

Unfortunately, Ruby has suffered considerably and Bradford-based Jacqueline has claimed over £9,861.

One claim was for a bilateral cruciate disease which involved X-rays and an MRI.

Another was for a tibial tuberosity advancement, whilst a corneal condition also involved a claim.

Direct Line paid for most of the claims directly to the vets.

Jacqueline has three sons and enjoys running as well as walking the two bulldogs.