What is pet insurance?
Pet insurance helps you cover the cost of veterinary treatment if your pet falls ill or gets injured. Pet insurance providers will also usually pay out if your pet dies, is lost or stolen, harms someone or damages property.
Which? has analysed scores of cat insurance and dog insurance policies, and thousands of pet insurance policyholders have rated the customer service of the biggest insurers.
We've also got a guide on how to find cheap pet insurance.
This guide explains how pet insurance works, what to watch out for and what's excluded from pet insurance policies.
What does pet insurance cover?
Pet insurance covers the cost of vet fees and certain medical expenses. Vet fee cover can range from as little as £1,000 to as much as £15,000.
In addition to vet fee cover, most pet insurance policies cover the following:
Death by accident or illness
If your pet dies you can get back the cost of what you paid for it or what it could sell for.
Most pet insurance policies have an age limit - typically of eight to eleven years for a cat and five to nine years for a dog - after which insurers will not pay out, or you'll have to make a contribution to costs.
Missing pet cover
Most pet insurance cover contributes to costs of putting up posters and paying a reward if your pet goes missing.
If you have a dog, your pet insurance policy should pay out if your dog injures someone or damages their property.
This covers legal costs, expenses and the claimant’s expenses.
Overseas travel cover
Most pet insurance policies will provide cover if your pet falls ill, is involved in an accident, or needs veterinary treatment when abroad. Many insurers also offer cover for lost travel and accommodation costs if you're forced to cancel a holiday because your pet becomes life-threateningly ill when you're due to leave.
Cattery and kennel fees
If you are hospitalised and there is no one else to look after your pet, pet insurance providers will usually pay out for your pet 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
Your policy may contain cover for the costs of your pet being put to sleep, cremation of burial.
Most pet insurers offer cover if your pet needs dental work. Some policies will only cover dental treatment resulting from an injury - and won't pay for dental costs related to illness. Those that do usually make the cover contingent on your pet receiving dental check-ups once a year.
- Find out more: Finding cheap pet insurance
What is excluded from pet insurance policies?
The following are some of the common exclusions from pet insurance policies. Be sure to read the terms and conditions of your policy carefully to make sure that you have the cover you need.
Pre-existing illness or injury
A pre-existing medical condition is one which existed prior to you taking out your pet insurance policy. They fall into two categories:
- Chronic conditions: these are ongoing problems your pet has at the time you take out your policy, eg heart conditions or hip dysplasia
- Historic conditions: these are illnesses or injuries that your pet no longer suffers from, eg healed tissue injuries or illnesses.
Most pet insurance providers exclude pre-existing conditions from any new cover - although in some cases these may be covered if your pet hasn't required treatment for these conditions for a certain period of time (for instance two years).
Most pet insurance providers do not cover illnesses that begin within the first 10-14 days of your pet insurance policy. A few will waive this if you are switching to them from another insurer - so you don't have a 'gap' in your cover.
Routine and preventative treatment
Treatments such as vaccinations, spaying, castration, flea, worm and tick treatments, grooming, claw clipping and teeth maintenance are often excluded from pet insurance cover.
Pregnancy and giving birth
Pet insurance policies may exclude expenses that arise due to pregnancy, giving birth and treatment of any offspring.
What are the main types of pet insurance?
Lifetime cover pet insurance
Lifetime policies are the most popular and the most comprehensive type of pet insurance. As the name suggests, they'll pay out indefinitely for treatment over your pet's lifetime - subject to annual limits.
Lifetime policies can work in different ways. Annual policies pay up to a specified amount on vet fees each year - say £5,000.
So in any given year, the insurer, in this case, would pay up to £5,000.
Another type of lifetime policy is per condition per year cover. With this, you'd get an annual limit for each condition - for example £2,000 per year for claims related to your cat's diabetes.
Other lifetime policies do a bit of both - paying a limited annual amount (e.g. £10,000), with a smaller annual benefit within this for any single condition (e.g. £2,000). So using those figures, you could make up to five claims of up to £2,000 in the year if your pet required treatment for five unconnected conditions - but you'd only get £2,000 towards a succession of costs involved in treating one illness.
With all types of policy, the higher the limit, the more expensive the premium. However, whatever this limit is, with a lifetime policy, you can rely on the insurer making an ongoing contribution towards the costs of your pet's conditions.
Non-lifetime cover pet insurance
Non-lifetime cover is less comprehensive and excludes certain conditions after you hit your claims limit.
There are two main types of non-lifetime insurance: per condition cover, and time-limit per condition cover.
Per condition pet insurance pays a limited amount for each condition and, once that limit has been reached, the insurer stops covering it.
For example, if your cat, Mittens, has an eye infection and your per condition cover limit is for eye infections is £5,000, once that limit is reached the insurer will no longer pay for claims related to eye infections, even after you renew your policy.
Time-limit per condition pet insurance cover will have both a monetary limit and time limit, typically of 12 months, before the condition is excluded.
Accident only pet insurance
Accident only pet insurance is the cheapest and most basic type of pet insurance. As the name suggests, it doesn't cover illnesses - only injuries.
Accident only policies provide a fixed sum of money for each accidental injury to help pay for your pet’s treatment, and will often also stop paying for the injury after twelve months.
- Find out more: our reviews of individual pet insurance providers
Does pet insurance cover pre-existing medical conditions?
There are a small number of pet insurance companies that consider covering pre-existing conditions.
Some will cover historic conditions where your pet has been free of symptoms and treatment for a set period of time - usually around two years. Others provide limited amounts of cover initially - which increase the longer your pet has been free of the condition.
Can older pets be insured?
Insurance companies typically treat cats and dogs over the age of eight years old as ‘older pets.’ For pets like rabbits, this decreases to around five years old and horses could be as high as 20 years old.
As your pet ages, they are more likely to fall ill or suffer an injury that could lead to a more expensive claim.
To cover this additional risk, pet insurers are likely to charge more to insure older pets than younger ones.
It is still possible to find competitive policies for older pets but it's important to shop around. Bear in mind the following:
- If your pet has had any illness or veterinary treatment in the past, be sure to check whether any exclusions apply to the new policy so you understand what you're paying for.
- Don't overlook the excess. Insurers typically impose higher excesses or 'co-payments' (or both), on older pets. A 'co-payment' is when the insurer won't pay a certain percentage of the claim's cost. For older pets, these can be as much as 25%.
What are the alternatives to pet insurance?
There are a number of alternatives to pet insurance if you want to protect your pet. These include.
Self-insuring your pet means saving a set amount of money to pay for potential vet bills.
With self-insurance, it’s really important to think about how much you can realistically afford to put aside and keep in a fund to protect your pet.
The risk of self-insuring is that you could run into veterinary costs that are higher than the amount you've saved.
For example, Hip dysplasia - where your pet needs both hips replaced - could cost around £7,000.
Charities and other help
If you can’t afford pet insurance the following groups offer free treatment to pets:
- The Blue Cross
- The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA)
- The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA)
- The Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (USPCA)
- The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA)
Help from these charities is means-tested and mainly helps people who are on a low income, retired or receive certain state benefits to get help towards the cost of veterinary care.
Pet insurance: your questions answered
Is pet insurance compulsory?
There is no legal requirement, in the UK, to have pet insurance.
Can I self-insure my pet?
It is possible to self-insure your pets if you don’t want to or cannot afford to pay for pet insurance.
Does my pet have to microchipped?
Microchipping your dog has been a legal requirement since April 6th 2016.
You may be able to save money on your premium by microchipping your cat and other pets. Your vet will be able to provide more details about the procedure.
Find out more: how to find cheap pet insurance
Can I get insurance for a pedigree dog?
It is possible to get insurance for pedigree pets but the premium is likely to be higher than that of a cross breed.
Pedigree pets are considered a greater risk as they have a higher value and suffer from illnesses and injuries directly associated with their breed.
Pet insurers charge a higher premium for pedigree pets to reflect this increased level of risk for potential claims to be made under the policy.
Does pet insurance cover hip dysplasia?
If your pet has a chronic pre-existing condition such as hip dysplasia it is unlikely to be covered by your pet insurance company.
A few pet insurance companies may offer cover for historic illnesses or injuries that your pet no longer suffers from, eg healed tissue injuries or illnesses.
What is pet insurance auto renewal?
Like many home and car insurers, most pet insurers automatically renew when you come to the end of a policy.
You will be given notice before you're signed up for a new policy, usually in the form of a letter. This letter should contain what you paid in the previous year.
Many insurers will notify you at least 21 days in advance to give you the chance to cancel.
Can I cancel my pet insurance policy if it accidentally auto-renews?
Yes. You have a 14-day cooling-off period once your policy has started and most insurers will let you cancel, only charging you for the cover you have used.
A number of pet insurers will also allow you to cancel later in the year, rebating you the unused portion of your premium (if you've paid annually).
How do I find cheaper cover at renewal?
Unlike car and home insurance, where switching or haggling are the key to finding the best rates, finding cheaper pet insurance is much more complicated.
Your chance of being able to beat your renewal quote depends on the age and general health of your pet. So be sure to shop around for the best deal that provides suitable cover at the time of taking out a new policy.
How long do I have to make a pet insurance claim?
It’s best to check how long you have to make a claim on pet insurance directly with your providers. Some insurers have a limit of 30 days.
Claims procedures differ between pet insurance providers but most insurers will probably require you to fill out a form and send it back to them.
You will also have to provide evidence of the claim so make sure you keep all the relevant receipts and invoices.
How will my pet's treatment be paid?
It’s best to check with your pet insurance provider as some companies will pay for your pet’s treatment directly and some will require you to pay and then claim the money back.
What happens if my pet insurance claim is rejected?
If you have exhausted the insurance company's complaints procedure (set out in your insurance policy) and your claim has not been settled, contact the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) on 0800 023 4567.
You usually have six months from the time you reach deadlock with the insurer in which to make a complaint.
The FOS' decision is binding on companies but not on the consumer, so you could, if you wish, refer the matter to court.
What if I have another pet insurance question?
Which? members with pet insurance can get in touch with our experts on the Which? Money helpline.