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Pet insurance: The good, the bad and the ugly

Picture this: you and your furry friend are out for a hike when suddenly out of the bushes emerges a 400-pound black bear that turns and runs … and your peaceable pal instantly turns into something more like Godzilla, focused only on capturing his prey.

When your dog returns, he has a huge gash on his head, which means your next stop will be at your veterinarian rather than the nearest Starbuck’s, followed by an eye-popping vet bill.

The most mundane activity can unexpectedly turn into a veterinary disaster, whether it’s your pup being cornered by an angry bear (or someone else’s vicious dog), swallowing something she shouldn’t have (golf, anyone?), or simply jumping off the bed and rupturing his ACL.

The aftermath is often a vet bill that could break Mike Bloomberg’s budget.

Billionaires aside, how many of us have a spare $1,000 — much less $10,000 — that we don’t need for necessities like food or rent or utility bills?

So, what to do? You could establish a special pet care savings account — but that won’t work if there’s not enough cash in the account. You could use your credit card or CareCredit, a special card that offers veterinary care financing — but that won’t work if you have lousy credit. You could take to singing on the street for cash — but that won’t work if your voice is more akin to the croaking of a hoarse frog.

Pet insurance could be the answer.

But first, educate yourself.

Unlike human health insurance, most pet insurance won’t cover routine care. It’s designed for times when your dog has a serious accident or illness that might otherwise force to you to make a truly awful decision like euthanizing him simply because you can’t afford treatment.

Unfortunately, you can’t predict if or when you might face that kind of issue.

That’s the risk in buying veterinary insurance: you may never need it, and you’ll have shelled out all those premium dollars for nothing.

Or it could enable you to save your dog’s life if something truly catastrophic happens, and paying those premiums will have been worth it.

If you’ve decided to consider pet insurance, keep some things in mind:

Can you afford the monthly premiums?

Are there age limits? (Some companies won’t insure a dog older than 7.)

Does the plan cover pre-existing conditions? (Most plans won’t, and some even exclude breed-specific conditions.)

What percentage of the bill do they pay? (Some companies pay a percentage of a covered cost after you’ve met the deductible, while others reimburse a maximum amount per diagnosis. Either way, you must pay your veterinarian first, then file a claim for reimbursement.)

Is the deductible per-incident or per-year? (Be careful here: if your dog ends up having several different problems in one year, you could end up having to meet the deductible multiple times.)

Are prescription drugs covered? (This can be a huge expense: drug therapy for chronic conditions can end up costing thousands of dollars over the dog’s lifetime.)

Does the policy pay if your pet is being treated and dies? (It’s an awful thought, but end-of-life care and euthanasia can be very expensive.)

Look at independent websites like Pet Insurance Review and Consumer Reports to find unbiased recommendations on veterinary insurance providers. Also check out comparison sites like Canine Journal and Nerd Wallet. Just be careful that the site isn’t sponsored by a pet insurance company — sometimes you can’t tell from the headline on Google.

Finally, remember to compare apples to apples on insurance plans to avoid unpleasant surprises — and as always, read the fine print!

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