Monday 27 May 2019

Insurance has saved the lives of many Irish pets

Life-saving veterinary care for pets can be expensive
Life-saving veterinary care for pets can be expensive

Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

Dan the Great Dane started salivating soon after eating his dinner. He looked increasingly uncomfortable, and by 9pm, he was in serious trouble, retching repeatedly. His abdomen seemed to be swelling up, as if inflated by a pump. When his owner called the emergency vet, she was able to make the diagnosis over the phone: "It sounds like gastric torsion: can you bring him into us at once?"

Gastric torsion is one of the worst problems that pets can suffer from, and it's most common in large breeds of dog. The stomach twists around on itself, and because the gas produced by digestive processes cannot escape, the stomach starts to swell up. As the swelling progresses, the pressure inside the abdomen gets higher and higher, disrupting the blood flow around the body. Urgent action is needed to save the dog's life. And that means intensive medical intervention, with intravenous fluids and other drugs, followed by major surgery to untwist the stomach. Torsions seem to happen more often at night, and even if everything done in the optimal way, many animals don't survive.

When Dan arrived at the emergency vet, he was rushed behind the scenes at once, with a team of vets and nurses clustered around him. The work to save his life had already begun. Meanwhile, his owner had to complete the paperwork with the receptionist. As part of the routine procedures, an estimate was generated for the expected costs: it was likely that his operation was going to happen between midnight and four in the morning, the most expensive time to employ a surgical team. The estimated bill was well over €2500.

Dan's owner looked at the estimate, and breathed a sigh of relief: "Thank God I have him insured".

The bottom line was that because he'd been paying out a monthly sum of less than thirty euros for the previous three years, the pet insurance company would cover the entire cost of Dan's treatment for gastric torsion, less the nominal excess of €100.

Pet insurance probably saved Dan's life that night: if he had not been insured, many owners would have had to make the difficult choice to have him euthanased. Many people just can't come up with several thousand euros for a crisis like this, especially when there is no guarantee that the animal will still be alive at the end of a long night.

Pet insurance has made a huge difference to many animals' lives. The principle is simple: you pay a small monthly sum to the insurance company, and if your pet is unfortunate enough to fall seriously ill or have an accident, the insurance covers the costs of the vets' bills.

Pet insurance was introduced relatively recently to Ireland, around twenty years ago, but it has been popular in other countries for many years. The concept started way back in 1924, in Sweden, and even now, this country is a global leader in pet insurance, with around 50% of the nation's pets covered. The UK was the next big market to open up, but although the first policy was written in 1947, market penetration has stayed around 20 - 25% of the pet population. It's hard to know what proportion of pets are covered in Ireland, but it's probably between 10 - 20% of dogs and cats. This may not seem like much, but it's high compared to many other countries: in the USA, pet insurance has never taken off in a wide ranging way, with estimates that less than 1% of pets are covered.

In recent years, however, pet insurance has been a victim of its own success. When a pet is insured, the cost of treatment doesn't matter so much to the owner. This means that people are able to obtain a far higher level of treatment for their pets than most would have been able to afford without insurance. The veterinary industry has responded to this demand by offering advanced care, including diagnostic imaging (such as MRI and CAT scans) and specialist surgical procedures (such as pacemakers for the heart, joint replacement surgery and even "Supervet" style prosthetic limbs). This is remarkable, life-changing stuff, but it is very costly. And guess what? Because the "insurance companies are paying", there's a direct effect at the other end of the equation: pet insurance premiums have been going up.

When pet insurance came out first, you could get a dog or cat insured for less than €10 a month for the duration of the animal's life, even if they fell ill and developed long term chronic illnesses. These days, the high level of claims that have to be paid by insurers have had an impact. While it is still possible to buy pet insurance that's excellent value, many people have been finding that the monthly premiums have gone so high that they can no longer afford to keep their pets covered.

The pet insurance industry is responding to this challenge in many ways: it's easy to go online and get competitive quotes from different companies. As with all insurance products, it's important to read the detail of the policy: there's no point in buying cheaper insurance if it doesn't pay out when you need it because your pet's problem is excluded for some reason.

Dan survived that night for two reasons: first, the skill of the vets treating him, and second, the fact that his owner had his veterinary costs covered by pet insurance.

Wexford People

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