Pet insurance explained

When choosing a pet insurance policy, there’s a lot to consider. Insurers now offer plans to suit a whole range of pet needs and owner’s budgets, so you can be assured that the right policy for you and your pet is out there and we’re here to help you find it!

When choosing the right pet insurance policy, understanding what the policy you are buying offers and what is included and excluded is paramount. Waiting times, where the insurer specifies an amount of time that needs to pass before claims can be made, and policy exclusions, where certain conditions are not covered in certain circumstances, are designed to help keep premiums lower for everyone. However, if you fail to check the policy terms and conditions and exclusion details you could be left without cover when you come to make a claim. The devil is definitely in the detail!

We’ve answered some of the most common questions asked by owners, but if there is something we’ve missed please let us know and we will investigate.

This is a common question and one we tackle in more detail in our article dedicated to this subject. In short, this is the type of insurance we all hope we never have to use, but while your pet may not have experienced any serious health problems or had an accident so far, if the worse happens it could mean you face hefty vet bills for diagnostic tests and treatment. Costs for the simplest tests and treatment soon mount up and no one wants to run up debts to cover costs, or borrow from friends or relatives. There are charities that might be able to help like the PDSA or Blue Cross, but their resources are stretched, and they will have qualifying criteria before agreeing to treat your pet. 

Veterinary treatment for ongoing conditions can potentially cost hundreds, or even thousands of pounds, which is why so many people choose a Lifetime policy to enjoy the security of knowing that the bulk of the cost of their pet’s health care is taken care of, no matter what scrapes they get into or bad luck they have with their health.

Pet insurance premiums will vary depending on your policy type, the breed and age of your pet, the excess fee you opt for and where you live. You can choose the type of cover you buy from basic Accident only cover costing just a few pounds a month in some cases, to Lifetime accident and illness cover. You can keep premiums down on an accident and illness plan by selecting a per condition plan where cover is limited to a set amount for each condition diagnosed, or by opting for a time limited plan where the insurer will cover any condition but only for a period of time (usually a year). Full Lifetime cover plans are usually the most expensive type of policy on offer and can cost up to £45 or more per month for cat, or more for a dog. It will depend on what you buy and your circumstances.

It's important, if you can, to insure your pet from a young age as this can help to keep the costs down as they won’t have developed any illnesses yet. Most insurers will cover pets from 8 weeks of age. Don’t despair if your pet is older when they join your family; there are policies that cover older pets too.   

The choice can be bewildering, and the costs can vary insurer to insurer, so it’s important to compare several insurers policies in some detail, consider the options, read the small print in insurer’s terms and conditions documents, read their reviews and consider your budget before buying.

There are lots of pet insurance providers operating in the UK, and many of them offer a wide range of pet insurance plans. However, the pet health insurance process is usually similar across different plans and providers:

  • Firstly, you need to choose the best pet insurance policy for you and your pet. Compare the UK’s major pet insurers policy types on offer starting with our dog health insurance, cat health insurance and equine insurance comparison tables, and read some of the thousands of reviews we have on the major pet insurance providers once you’ve narrowed down your list. 
  • Once you’ve chosen a few possible insurance providers click through our comparison tables buttons to get a few personalised quotes. In most cases you’ll be able to customise your plan by selecting your excess, cover type and the policy key features during the quote process. Normally, you’ll be able to choose between lifetime cover, an annual or per condition cover limit value policy or an accident only policy. You may be able to choose your excess amount, which is the amount you pay either annually or per condition – make sure you know which applies. In fact, be sure to check the terms and conditions before you buy so there are no nasty surprises later. Once you’ve decided on a policy you will usually pay for your pet health insurance cover monthly.
  • Should your pet fall ill or become injured, you can visit any registered vet for treatment. You will usually need to pay the whole vet bill up front so it’s a good idea to check your cover and the claim process with your insurance company before committing to expensive treatment. 
  • You can then submit a claim to your insurance company and will be reimbursed for treatment covered by your policy.

Most pet insurance policies require you to pay any vet care costs yourself and then submit a claim to the insurer to be reimbursed later. The speed of this process varies from insurer to insurer but is generally getting faster, with some claims being settled within a few days. Remember to check what our reviews say about reimbursement speeds. 

The excess is an agreed amount of money that you must pay to the insurance company before they will provide compensation for your claim. The excess amounts vary between insurers and policies, and you will normally need to choose how much you would like to pay, and whether you would like a per condition excess amount, or an annual excess when you take out your policy.

If you have a per-condition excess and have a per-condition policy your excess payments will be totalled across each claim related to the same condition until your excess limit is reached and then the insurance company will pay for any additional expenses up to any cover amount limit. If you make a claim for a new condition, the excess amount will reset, and any previous excess payments will not be counted against this new condition.

Annual excess payments will be totalled across the year, regardless of whether your pet suffers from the same or different medical conditions and will reset every 12 months.

For both types of excess, it is important to submit a claim for every vet bill you receive for each condition so that all the payments you make are counted against your per condition or annual excess amount.

Some insurers insert a co-pay or co-insurance clause in their policies. It is used more often as a pet gets older to limit the amount the insurer must pay out as claims usually increase as our pets age. 

The co-pay percentage is the amount of the total medical expenses you must pay once your excess amount is removed. For example, if your vet fees are £2,000 and you have an excess of £250 and a co-pay percentage of 10%, you would pay your £250 excess and a co-pay amount of £175. Your insurer will then reimburse you £1575 to cover the rest of the cost of treatment.

Example:

£2,000 vet fee - £250 excess leaves £1750.

Co-pay percentage of 10% of £1750 is £175 you pay. The pet insurance company pays the remaining £1575. 

In some cases, you may be able to choose your co-pay percentage but in many policies the insurer will define what it will be, and it may increase as your pet gets older. 

Most pet insurance providers will not cover treatment for conditions that may be counted as pre-existing. If you pet is showing symptoms or has been treated for an illness or condition before the start-date of your policy, or during the policy waiting period, it is unlikely that your insurance provider will cover any treatment related to this condition.

While any claim for a pre-existing condition will not be valid, you’ll still be covered for any treatment for unrelated accidents or illness.

With this in mind, it is important to take out a pet health insurance policy while your pet is still young and hasn’t developed any illnesses, so you can maximise the cover you have. Luckily, most pet insurance providers will accept policies on pets from as young as 8 weeks.

Many policies allow you to choose the limits on your policy, and there are several different types of policies that work in different ways. By selecting a lower limit on any type of cover, you may reduce your premiums, but you will need to cover any costs over and above the limits on your policy.

An Accident only policy does what it says on the tin; it only covers your pet if they have an accident or injury and they don’t cover illnesses. You may be able to select a payout limit per accident or per year.  the policy is likely to have an excess that you pay at the beginning of treatment for any accident. Some insurers also introduce a co-pay additional excess percentage if your pet is older.    

A per condition policy, or maximum benefit policy with pay out limit choices means that there is a limit on the amount you can claim for all treatments relating to the same condition. If you have a per condition limit of £1,000 you can claim up to a maximum of £1,000 (excluding any excess you pay) for treating a single condition. For example, you can make claims for all accidents and covered conditions, so you might claim for your dog’s diabetes for up to £1,000, and for a leg injury for up to £1,000 of treatment, and so on for each different accident or condition. If an injury or condition reoccurs, this is classed as the same condition and you would only be able to claim back what has not yet been claimed out of the maximum limit of £1,000. Cover is not time limited but continues until the benefit for each condition is exhausted.  

In most cases, once the limit is reached for an individual condition you can no longer claim for that condition and it becomes a pre-existing condition no longer covered by your policy. 

A time limited policy means that there is either a limit to the total amount the insurer will pay out for all vet fees in a year or there is a limit on the total amount your insurer will pay out annually for each condition. You will need to be sure which type of policy you have. If you time limited policy is per condition it will mean that you can claim up to your limit for each condition but cover for that condition ceases once the limit for that condition is reached or after 12 months from the original occurrence of the condition, whichever is sooner. 

If your policy has a limit for all vet fees in a year it will probably have a per condition limit too. This means that when you reach the per condition limit cover for that condition will cease but other conditions will be covered up to your total annual limit.

You will need to pay for any treatment costs once the amount you need to claim within the year goes over the annual limit or per condition limit. You will be able to begin claiming for vet care costs again once you have renewed your policy at the end of the year but check to see if your time limit has per condition limits, as this will mean conditions already claimed for where cover is exhausted, will not be covered in future.

Time limited policies are potentially the most confusing because of the variations so we would advise you to read the policy terms and conditions very carefully before buying to make sure you know exactly how your policy works.  

A lifetime policy with payout limit options means that you will be able to claim for all illnesses and conditions your pet may develop throughout their lifetime, up to the payout limit you have per year. Cover will continue each year for all conditions previously insured if you renew your policy annually with no breaks in cover, However, it’s always best to check the details of your policy each time you renew, as your premiums may increase if you claim and probably will increase as your pet gets older.

Lifetime cover policies are the most straightforward to understand and tend to give the best cover overall. 

Most pet insurance policies will include a waiting period after enrolment. During this period, you will be unable to make any claims for accidents or illnesses, and if your pet does fall ill, this will be classed as a pre-existing condition. The initial waiting periods for illnesses and accidents will depend on your insurer, however, it is normally around 14 days for illnesses and 48 hours for accidents, effective from the start date of your policy.

Some insurers will have a specific waiting period for some orthopaedic conditions. This means that if your pet develops an orthopaedic issue in the waiting period, you will not be able to make a claim. If your pet has an orthopaedic examination within the first 14 days of taking out your policy and you can provide your insurer with a medical report from your vet which details your pet’s current health, your pet insurance company may be able to decrease the orthopaedic condition waiting period. You will need to talk to your insurer to see if they would do this.  

Some waiting periods may also be subject to age restrictions, and each insurer will have different waiting periods, so it’s important to be clear of the limitations detailed in your policy before you buy.

Bilateral conditions are those that can occur on both sides of the body such as ACL problems in joint on both sides of the body. Some policies only exclude specified bilateral conditions, while others exclude all bilateral conditions. It is important to check the details of your policy, particularly if your pet is a breed that tends to develop bilateral conditions such as hip dysplasia or ACL issues.

Some insurers will cover bilateral conditions but may limit how much cover they will provide on the second side of the body.

This means that if your pet develops a condition that is not covered bi-laterally, the treatment on the first affected area would be covered but if the condition were to occur on the other side of the body, the treatment of the second affected area would not be covered or may have the cover limited. Similarly, if your pet has already had treatment for a bi-lateral condition before the commencement of the policy, treatment for the limb on the other side of the body might not be covered if they exclude these types of conditions.

If your policy has a limit on the maximum pay-out per condition it may also apply to bilateral conditions in some policies. If it does apply this means that if you submit a claim for hip dysplasia in your dog’s left hip two years into the policy, and a year later your dog develops the same condition in their right hip, those two incidents would be classed as the same incident in the eyes of the insurer and you would only be able to claim what is left of the maximum pay-out limit per condition for the second hip issue.

Larger, more active dogs are at increased risk of developing hip dysplasia. It is more common in the following breeds:

  • Labrador Retriever
  • German Shepherd
  • Newfoundland
  • Rottweiler
  • Golden Retriever
  • St. Bernard
  • Boxer
  • French Bulldog

While dogs of any age or breed can develop ACL injuries, they are more common in the following breeds:

  • Labrador Retriever
  • German Shepherd
  • Newfoundland
  • Rottweiler
  • Golden Retriever
  • St. Bernard
  • Bichon Frise

As bilateral conditions are likely to affect both sides of your pet’s body, it is important to always check which restrictions apply if your policy includes a bilateral exclusion.

When you visit your vet because your pet is ill or has had an accident, in addition to the cost of any tests and the treatment which your pet receives, you will be charged an examination fee. The cost of the examination fee will vary vet practice to vet practice, and whether you go to a specialist vet. Emergency appointments out of hours may also carry higher costs than routine examination fees.

Most insurers will cover examination fees relating to an illness or injury but do not cover vet fees relating to regular checkups, vaccinations or other routine treatments.  If you want to be sure that your fees are covered, regardless of whether it is an emergency or specialist appointment, be sure to check both the details of your policy and with your insurer before you buy your policy as some insurers charge higher excess fees for referrals to specialist vets.

If your pet is diagnosed with a condition such as diabetes, bladder stones or heart disease, it may be necessary to feed them a specific diet. Prescription diets are normally only available through your vet and are often more expensive than regular pet food. Some special diets that are not prescription-only diets, such as food to reduce tartare on your pet’s teeth, or to treat obesity, are available to buy over the counter and online but can also be more expensive that standard dog or cat food.

In most cases prescription diets are not covered by your pet insurance policy but some policies will include an allowance for special diets. Some insurers might agree to cover the cost of a prescription diet if it is to help treat a short-term health problem, for example to help dissolve bladder stones. However, if the food is available to buy over the counter, or the diet has been prescribed by your vet to help treat an on-going or long-term condition, it is unlikely that you will be able to claim for these expenses on your pet insurance policy for very long even if there is some cover offered.

Conditions related to breeding and whelping are usually not covered in your pet insurance policy. You can purchase specialist breeder’s insurance which can help you cover the cost of any veterinary care if you choose to breed or whelp your dog. If the puppies require any veterinary treatment after being born, it will also help cover these costs but usually only provide cover for the puppies up to 8 weeks of age.

Some pet insurance providers offer special accident and illness cover packages away from home. This means that if you are a UK resident and you are travelling with your pet abroad, you will be able to claim on your pet insurance should your pet fall ill.

However, it is unlikely that you will be able to claim back any costs if you need to cancel your holiday if your pet falls ill unexpectedly unless this cover is offered specifically. If overseas travel cover is offered it is also important to know what is covered in your policy before you leave the UK, as some insurers will also apply a maximum claim amount to these types of claims, so check the terms and conditions before you travel!

Advertiser Disclosure:

The information above is non-specific to any particular pet insurance policy and should be regarded as a basic overview of the type of features that may feature in a policy. The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author. Always refer to an insurer for specific, accurate information on their policy features.