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8 Dec 2021

5 pet insurance pitfalls to look out for

Which? reveals the gaps in cover for cats and dogs and how to find the best policy
A dog being checked over by a vet

With over 3 million UK households having acquired a pet between the start of the pandemic and 2021 - according to the Pet Food Manufacturers' Association - there's plenty of new owners figuring out whether and how to insure their new companion.

Shopping around for pet insurance can be excruciatingly complicated, especially if your pet has pre-existing medical conditions.

What's more, switching insurer while retaining your full cover is no simple matter, making it important to make the right choice first time.

To help owners navigate the jargon, we analysed 84 policies covering cats and 92 covering dogs in November.

Here, we show you five areas in which policies diverge - and where you might unexpectedly find yourself lacking cover you'd assumed you had.

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1. Pre-existing medical conditions cover

Of the policies we looked at, few covered pets' pre-existing medical conditions (PEMCs):

  • 16% of policies covering dogs
  • 12% of policies covering cats

PEMCs are specifically conditions that pre-date taking out the cover - and, usually - new illness that develop within the policy's first two weeks.

The consequence of this is that as your pet ages, switching from one insurer to another (say, if the premium goes up) means you potentially trade down on cover - as any illnesses your pet has had will be excluded on the new policy.

The good news:

We found a few insurers that would consider covering a pet's PEMCs - though how they'll do so varies. By default, Direct Line and Petplan exclude covering PEMCs - but if these are declared when you buy the policy, they may arrange to waive or limit the exclusion in some instances.

Bought By Many's specialised 'Pre-existing' policy provides limited cover for PEMCs that haven't required treatment within the three months ahead of you taking out the insurance. In the first year, cover for those conditions is restricted to £500 - but this increases to standard levels over two years, provided no claims were made for those conditions. Its other policies cover any condition that hasn't caused symptoms or led to advice or treatment in the prior two years.

Meanwhile, K9 Cover, a new insurer, includes a medical screening process as part of its online quote. You can declare any condition and receive an immediate indication of whether it will be covered and how much extra it will cost.

2. Dental cover (for accidents and illness)

Costs of dental treatment can vary depending on the work required, the type and size of pet and the vet you're using. This makes for a broad range. In a recent survey of Which? members who'd claimed in the last five years, some who'd claimed for dental work reported costs as low as £100 - while another had been on the hook for as much as £1,460.

Most pet insurance policies we scrutinised include dental cover for injuries and accidents (for example, your dog fracturing a tooth while gnawing on a toy) - but a third won't cover dental treatment resulting from an illness.

Even if you have a policy that does, you're expected to arrange and fund any 'routine' dental procedures (such as cleaning or scale and polish) yourself - and where you need to make a dental claim, you'll need to be able to demonstrate that your pet has been receiving annual checkups.

The good news:

Dental cover for accidents and illness is one of our criteria for Best Buy pet insurance policies. This year we picked 14 Best Buy policies for dogs and 12 for cats.

Which? Members can find out which policies made the grade in our Best and Worst pet insurance guide.

3. Holiday cancellation cover

Holiday cancellation cover pays out if you have to cancel a holiday at the last minute because your pet gets critically ill at the point you're due to travel.

This won't be on everyone's 'essentials' list - and indeed often comes as an optional extra. But if you've got trips planned, it could end up saving you money.

The good news:

Three quarters (77%) of the policies for dogs offer holiday cancellation cover and 85% of the policies covering cats. Where available, cover levels range widely - from £250-£5,000.

Beware, though, the criteria for making claims on this cover are often restrictive - with it typically necessary that the pet's illness is 'life threatening' - in order for the insurer to pay out.

Before buying holiday cancellation cover, check you're not already covered under your travel insurance.

4. Euthanasia

Sometimes, with treatment options exhausted, the only humane resolution is to put the pet to sleep.

While this final cost is likely to be small (around £100) compared to that of treating illness and injury, about a tenth (12%) of cat policies we looked at and a fifth (20%) of the dog policies rule out paying it.

It's rarer still for policies to contribute towards any cremation or burial costs (roughly half of the policies will).

The good news:

Many policies do cover euthanasia fees. Some cover it within your overall vets fees allowance, though if you've already exhausted that, you will have to pay out of pocket.

Other insurers have a defined limit that ranges between £100-£200.

5. Emergency boarding fees

Pet insurance isn't just for pets being unwell. If you take ill or are injured - your policy may have some provision for the costs of keeping your pet looked after while you're in hospital.

With some policies, this also applies if you're delayed returning from travel, and so need to pay unexpected kennel or cattery costs.

The good news:

82% of the policies for dogs and 89% of the policies we looked at for cats contain some version of it - but the remainder didn't.

Total amounts of cover available range from £100 to £2,000.

The RSPCA has a useful checklist of what to do before leaving your pet to go on holiday.

Pet insurance - what do I need to know?

If you're renewing your pet's policy, or buying cover for the first time, these tips can help:

Do I need pet insurance?

This isn't necessarily a straightforward decision - however, the bottom line is that with no NHS for animals, having some financial capacity to deal with unexpected vet's bills is a core part of caring for your pet.

Simply relying on your savings may not be enough. Last year, the average pet insurance claim was £817 - but vets costs can easily run to the thousands. And, if your pet develops a long-term illness, such as diabetes, these costs can be ongoing.

How much pet cover do I need?

This depends on the type and breed of pet you have, and your choice will probably be constrained, to some extent, by your budget.

We think a policy should, at a bare minimum, pay at least £2,000 a year for vet's bills - but this won't necessarily be adequate for all pets.

Pet policies don't just vary in the amount they'll pay - but also in how long, or if, they'll continue covering costs for an ongoing condition. We think 'lifetime' policies are the best option.

The mechanics of how these pay, again, differ (remember the 'excrutiatingly complicated' bit?) - however, they'll all cover up to a certain amount every year for any condition covered. This means that while they won't necessarily pay every penny of your vet's fees, you can at least rely on ongoing support.

What do I need to pay attention to?

The headline amount an insurer provides covering vets fees is far from the whole story.

Before committing to a purchase, carefully read the policy terms (the smallprint) - paying attention to its general conditions and exclusions. Some elements - for example, 'death from illness' cover (which pays some of the pet's value if your pet dies of illness) are removed from the policy after your pet passes a maximum age.

Check the policy's excesses and any co-payments. The is money that will have to come from your pocket when you claim, so it's important to know the amount.

Also, check the health of your pet. If the insurer learns of any medical history that predates the policy (this usually includes receiving medical advice as well as any treatment), it may deny claims for that condition in future. If you've declared the condition when taking the policy out, some insurers may agree to cover it.