Pet owners are paying hundreds of dollars every year for insurance to ward off expensive vet bills. But most will get much better value for money if they look for a policy that covers basic vet care, one animal expert says.
There are three main providers of pet insurance in New Zealand: Ellenco, owned by Southern Cross, The Warehouse's Petplan and Pet-n-sur.
Policies are available from $18.41 a month for cats and $27.40 for dogs covering standard vet treatments, although Ellenco and Pet-n-sur also offer cheaper options that pay only for surgery.
More expensive policies, up to $50 a month, cover things such as owners having to cancel a planned holiday because a pet is ill.
SPCA executive director Bob Kerridge said the best way to make insurance pay was to look for a policy that covered the essentials, such as routine vaccinations.
"We find most people will claim [with those policies] two or three times a year and get a good percentage of their money back."
People were less likely to claim on policies that cover only emergencies and illnesses - but at a couple of hundred dollars a time you would still need only one incident a year to make a policy worthwhile.
Pet-n-sur and Ellenco offer plans that pay for things such as annual vaccinations but Petplan does not.
A Pet-n-sur spokesman said it had paid out $2.85 million in pet medical bills in the year to December 31.
The biggest claim was $22,505.41. "The most common claims are for foreign body ingestion and accidents."
Ellenco chief operating officer Anthony McPhail said his company's biggest claim last year was $12,000 for a dog's spinal surgery.
But he said there were regular claims for dogs eating things they shouldn't, including an incident where a dog ate polyurethane adhesive glue which conformed to the shape of the dog's stomach and turned into a mass that had to be surgically removed. The cost of that procedure was more than $1400.
Alex Melrose, of VetCare Grey Lynn, recommended pet insurance to his clients and 10 to 15 per cent had it. "If you're someone who gets things treated well and rapidly, it's a good deal."
Chantell Quintal, of Petplan, said The Warehouse's policies had paid out on a wide range of illnesses and accidents.
"We have found that some of the most common claims relate to leg, hip and shoulder disorders, followed closely by gastrointestinal and urinary concerns. While we receive many claims in the hundreds of dollars, claims in the thousands have become common and we have received claims reaching well above $10,000."
She said people should find out whether policies would continue to cover conditions as they arose.
"Sometimes at renewal you find you're no longer covered for things you've claimed on."
Petplan requires owners to pay a percentage of each claim as well as the $100 excess once a pet reaches 10, or seven for some dog breeds. Ellenco won't automatically insure cats over seven or dogs over five.
Auckland woman Emma-Jane Taylor says her Petplan policy stopped her going broke when it was discovered her Pomeranian had a condition where his brain was growing but his skull was not, and needed expensive surgery.
"It cost $17,000 in the first year of having him.
I would be completely broke if we hadn't had insurance."
Glenfield woman Casey Jenkins has also found it has paid off for her two dogs, Kato and Ruby. Blood tests cost $500 to determine Ruby was unwell because she had been eating other dogs' hair.
She recently submitted a claim for $5000 of surgery for Kato when he fell off a bed.
"I would recommend it to all owners of dogs ... dogs eat and do dumb stuff so it's worth it. For $40 a month, it's worth it."