I've just spent $1443.38 on my cat at the local veterinary surgery. While that sounds horrific, pet insurance would have cost me between $1989 and $7953 for my cat over a decade.

I put money aside and can afford the bills but the experience made me think again about the pros, and some cons, of pet insurance.

Pets don't get ACC and free hospital care. Even a course of antibiotics can cost $60 or more. And, as I once found out, two stitches on Boxing Day can cost $450.

The issue that hit home with me with the recent vet visits has been morals not money. For some people, a big vet bill can mean the end for their pets.


I spoke with each of the main pet insurers this week and they point out among other things that more and more complex (read expensive) treatments are being offered that keep pets alive for longer.

That means more questions for owners about whether or not they can afford to pay for treatment.

What policies are available?

There are three pet insurers in New Zealand: Southern Cross Pet Insurance, Pet-n-sur and Petplan. Each offers a variety of levels of cover. They'll all tell you they're the best.

Should I get comprehensive cover or accident or surgery only? For a young pet, the biggest risk is probably being hit by a car.

If you're unlucky, and as the pet gets older, the problem could be illness. As I found out, it can cost more than $1000 just to diagnose an illness without a bean spent on treatment or surgery. Personally, I would go for comprehensive cover.

What level of cover should you choose? Comprehensive cover comes in a variety of levels. Having read all the policies this week, I don't think I would choose the cheapest. A few thousand can be eaten up fast. But if the cheapest policy is all you can afford, something is better than nothing.

How can I save money?

One good way to save money, as with any insurance policy, is to get a big excess in return for lower premiums.

But unlike a car or house policy, where your excess might be a set dollar figure, with a pet insurance policy your excess is often a percentage of the claim.

With pet insurance you often pay 20 or 25 per cent. Let's say the bill is $20,000, you still have to pay $4000.

This can help draw a line to stop owners putting their pets through the trauma of too much treatment.

Should you get the extras?

If you need to save money, don't sign up for any extras available on the policy, just the basic illness and accident cover.

What if my pet has already been ill?

All pre-existing conditions will be excluded from your policy. That's not to say that your pet will suffer from something unrelated in the future or have an accident.

Just don't expect another occurrence of the same illness to be covered. Pets may need to be under a certain age, such as 6, when the policy is first taken out.

How do I know I'll be covered?

Read the policy. They aren't that difficult, although I noted they varied from quite short to 39 pages.

But you'll find lots of exclusions that you do need to know about. Anything from alternative medicines (some policies do cover these) to your pet fighting with another animal when there was a history of fighting before the policy was taken out.

Unfortunately these policies are some of the more detailed and eye-raising exclusions I've read in insurance contracts.

Is it worth insuring pure-bred animals?

While waiting at the vet, I overheard the owner of a small pug-type dog explaining that she didn't have insurance because there were too many exclusions for purebreds.

This is because they often suffer from genetic problems passed down through the bloodline. Purebreds may be subject to exclusions, higher excesses, or additional premiums.

You'd probably kick yourself if you didn't have cover and the dog was run over or caught an expensive illness.

At what point do you choose euthanasia?

Some people can spend up to $15,000 on their pet's medical bills, my vet tells me. For others, there is a financial line where they say enough's enough.

There are also people who can't afford much smaller bills and surrender their sick or injured pets to the SPCA, says New Zealand Veterinary Association chief veterinary officer Dr Helen Beattie.

"When something goes wrong with a much-loved pet, it sometimes can be a hard choice for an owner, who is balancing discretionary spending and a household budget," she says.

There is also a question of whether continued treatment is cruel for an animal that doesn't understand what's happening. Some owners can't face putting their animals down even when it might be the kindest thing to do.

For the record, my cat is still with us, although not out of the woods completely with his medical treatment.