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Pet insurance explained

By Dean Sobers

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Pet insurance explained

Find out what pet insurance typically covers and what types of policy you can choose from.

Nearly half of UK households have a pet, but not all of them have pet insurance. Find out what pet insurance covers, and what alternatives are available.

What does pet insurance cover?

A pet insurance policy will cover medical expenses but it won't cover routine visits to the vet or events you could have anticipated, such as vaccinations or neutering. The most important feature of a pet insurance policy is the vet-fee cover and how this pays out. Vet-fee cover typically ranges from as low as £500 to as much as £12,000.

Most pet insurance policies also include…

  • Death by accident or illness. If your pet dies you can get back what you paid for it or what it could sell for. Most have an age limit, typically of seven to 10 years for a cat and seven to eight years for a dog, after which insurers will not pay out.
  • Cover for advertising. If your pet goes missing you can claim back the cost of putting up posters and paying a reward if your pet is found.
  • Third-party liability (dog policies only). This part of your policy pays out if your dog injures a third party or damages their property. This covers legal costs, expenses and the claimant’s expenses. Cats don’t need third-party cover as legally they are considered ‘free spirits’.
  • Overseas travel cover. This will provide cover if your pet falls ill, is involved in an accident, or needs veterinary treatment when abroad. 
  • Cattery and kennel fees. If you are hospitalised, this cover will only pay out if there is no-one else who can look after your pet and it has to be put in a cattery or a kennel. You usually have to be in hospital for at least two to four consecutive days.
  • Euthanasia, cremation and burial. Some policies offer to pay a contribution to these costs. 
  • Dental cover. If your pet needs dental work this section of the policy will cover it. The section usually only covers accidents but some policies may also cover illness.

What are the main types of pet insurance?

Pet insurance policies fall into three main categories, lifetime cover, non-lifetime cover and accident only.

Find out more: Not sure which policy to choose? See Finding cheap pet insurance for more.

Pet insurance: lifetime cover

Lifetime cover is the most comprehensive on the market, paying out for ongoing issues the pet may have throughout its lifetime.

There are two main types of lifetime cover, per condition per year cover and annual lifetime cover. Per condition per year has a maximum limit for each condition, which resets each year, while annual cover has a maximum overall limit that resets each year. Both policies cover ongoing illnesses every year unless you cancel your policy.

For example, a per condition per year policy for a dog called Rover might pay out a maximum £1,000 each year to treat his skin condition, another £1,000 for his diabetes and a similar amount for any other conditions, but anything over the limit you would have to pay for yourself. However, at the end of the policy year the limits would reset to £1,000 for each condition. An annual lifetime policy, on the other hand, might offer £5,000 for all conditions for each year the cover is in force and resets each year.

Pet insurance: non-lifetime cover

Non-lifetime cover is less expensive but is less comprehensive, with conditions excluded after you hit the claims limit. There are two main types of non-lifetime insurance, per condition cover and time-limit, per condition cover.

Per condition cover pays a limited amount for each condition and, once the limit has been reached, the condition is excluded from future payouts. Time-limit per condition cover has both a per condition limit and time limit, typically of 12 months, before the condition is excluded.

So, if Miss Whiskers had an eye problem and your per condition cover had a limit of £800, once the limit was reached you could no longer cover her for that condition, even once the policy renewed. With a time limit policy, even if the limit wasn’t reached, the condition would be eventually excluded after 12 months. 

What is accident-only pet insurance?

Accident-only insurance excludes cover for illness from the policy entirely. Although these policies may be cheap in comparison they may be a false economy. A recent survey of Which? members about their claims history over a two-year period showed that 70% of claims were for illnesses. 

What if my pet has pre-existing conditions?

Be very careful if you decide you want to switch to another pet insurance provider. Very few policies will cover pre-existing conditions, which means if you have made a claim and decide to switch your new provider will exclude that condition.

Find out more: Want to know how to renew your pet insurance policy? Check out Renewing your pet insurance

Are older pets covered?

Premiums for older pets tend to rise year on year, putting owners in a catch-22 situation. On the one hand, if you stay with your current insurer, your premiums may jump sharply when your pet reaches old age. On the other, if you decide to switch, insurers exclude pre-existing conditions from cover, and some may not take on older pets at all. 

Ideally, you should choose a policy with lifelong cover while your pet is still young. If you own an older pet, it’s still worth shopping around, but don’t cancel your current policy until you find a new one that fully addresses your pet’s needs. To find the best cover for your pet, check out cat insurance and dog insurance reviews.

Can I self-insure my pets?

Pet insurance is as much about peace of mind as it is about money. You may pay insurance premiums for years and never make a claim. But think about whether you could afford a huge vet's bill if your pet fell ill or had an accident in the short term. According to a survey of Which? members the average cost of the first pet insurance claim is £899, so you will have to save up fairly quickly.

What if I can’t afford insurance?

There are still options for vet treatment if you can’t afford pet insurance. Animal charities PDSA and RSPCA offer treatment on a means-tested basis. To qualify for free help, you must be in receipt of either housing benefit or council tax benefit. The SSPCA and the USPCA can offer advice to those in Scotland and Northern Ireland, respectively.

The Blue Cross' four animal hospitals in London and Grimsby also provide treatment for those who are in receipt of means-tested state benefits. You’ll be asked to make a donation towards the cost of any treatment, depending on what you can afford.


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