A few weeks ago, I made a cardinal personal finance sin. I purchased a puppy.
Getting a pet is a financial liability. Most veteran pet owners know that. First time pet owners, go into it blind, captured by those puppy dog eyes and fluffy stuff.
The rules of common sense don't apply when you get a pet. And to be fair, just like having a child, you don't get a fur baby out of fiscal prudence.
While I have owned several pets in my time, I have never had pet insurance. It wasn't widely available until recently and the numbers didn't stack up well, against self insuring.
2023 was annus horribilis for my family, pet wise.
Last November, lost my beloved wheaten-terrier of 12 years. I was expecting gorgeous Mazzy to live another two years. She'd had remarkable good health most of her life. Regular trips to the vet didn't pick up anything sinister either.
Mazzy died very suddenly and unexpected from a ruptured tumour. We only found out the cause of death through an autopsy, something I'm sure pet insurance would not cover.
Mazzy's death was made all the worse as we'd also lost our six-year-old cat Magic six months earlier. Another very sad, and expensive sob story which has me pondering pet insurance for the first time ever.
I believe pet insurance really only became popular about a decade ago. Like other types of insurance, it buys you peace of mind. Things don't often go wrong, but when they do, they can be incredibly expensive and worth it.
When our cat Magic died of complications from a blocked bladder, it was a brutal in just about every way. He was one of the most chilled out, loveable, and cool cats I've owned. Everyone adored him. When he didn't come back for his dinner one night, panic ensued. He loved his food so much, it was cause for worry when he didn't bolt through his cat flap at the first sound of the kibble hitting his bowl.
We eventually found Magic under a neighbor's house, deep in the bushes and in agony. Our local vet diagnosed him instantly performed an emergency procedure to unblock him. The treatment involved anesthetising, catheterising him and cleaning out all the tubes to make sure he could pee again. While it is a common procedure it is invasive, risky and requires strict supervision afterwards.
Magic stayed at the vets the first night after his surgery but wasn't quite right and still needed emergency care so ended up in emergency for the weekend. Even before he was admitted, we were close to $2k in medical bills.
Each night at the hospital was going to be another $800 or so, IF he stayed well.
To cut a long and very sad story short, poor Magic had to undergo the procedure again plus undergo a number of tests to check his blood and kidneys. At this stage, it was eye-watering on all fronts and the poor little critter wasn't turning a corner. He just kept going down hill.
On Monday, we transferred him back to our local vet, who suggested, as a last attempt to save his life, something akin to a sex change operation that would ostensibly fix his busted-up bladder. Sadly, that also did not work and a week or so later finally said goodbye. I think the final bill was in excess of $8k. It was a good case for pet insurance.
My older dog remained healthy most of her 12 years so I could confidently say pet insurance wasn't necessary and wouldn't have been in our interest.
But that's the thing with pets, like humans, you don't have a crystal ball.
It doesn't take a foreteller to know that pets are going to be expensive over their lifetime. Just how expensive, really depends on their lifespan, and health. The former, you can guess-timate a lot easier.
Like kids, you don't get a pet because it is financially prudent. If you looked at the costs
It's 100% emotional, and there is, I would argue, a good case that pets reduce your own medical bills because they add to your happiness and well-being. Well, I know they do mine.
Mazzy was only expensive because we ended up getting an autopsy to find out what killed her, as her death was so sudden and unexpected, and her tumors had remained invisible to all, including a vet. I don't believe she was a good case for pet insurance, but let's face it, insurance buys you peace of mind and protection for the unknown.
But back to Winston, the newest member of our family. When Winston arrived from breeders, we were pitched free pet insurance for the first six weeks. You can bet your bottom dollar the actuaries have done the numbers on pet emergencies and the first six weeks, and they would be slim to none. So let's not be fooled here; the "free" pet insurance is an appetizer to get you signed up after you have fully fallen in love.
Now, I'm coming close to the end of my free coverage period and will have to make a decision going forward. I find it hilarious, although not surprising, that in all the correspondence I have received in this honeymoon freebie time, that at no stage did the insurer explain what the real cost would be. Of course, they don't want to put you off.
I'm still weighing up the pros and cons and will weigh up the actual cost over the years too, versus self-insuring. The good folks at MoneyHub have done some research here and provide a table of comparisons on their website. It is comprehensive and well worth the read if you are seriously thinking about going down this route.
People scarcely read the terms and conditions because often, they are pages and pages long and in fine print, but if you don't want to be disappointed, you really ought to. On a recent visit to the vet with young Winston, our vet also cautioned me about how tricky some of these policies can be. If junior happens to have a heat rash, for example, or an allergy to grass, and that gets reported by the vet, it could destroy all hope of ever getting any coverage from your insurer for a future skin issue, which is the biggest problem by a long mile to affect dogs over their life. It doesn't matter if it was a hot summer, or puppy was still growing into his skin and therefore had some sensitivities.
Another case our vet shared was of a pup who got some wart from another pooch at puppy preschool. Although it was totally treatable and went away, having a record of that wart on his medical history nullified his eligibility to cover him having to undergo surgery later on in life for a tumor. When even vets are skeptical, it makes you wonder.
On the other hand, you'll hear plenty of positive pet insurance stories by puppy parents who say it was a godsend after junior ate the Christmas chocolates or a pair of plastic crocs. The jury is still out for me and Winston despite the special offer by my insurer to treat me to a real bonus: the removal of any stand-down period in which I would potentially be waiting for them to reimburse me. It is this kind of stuff that really claws me and makes me want to self-insure. But the financial wounds of young Magic are still fresh and almost as deep as the heartache. So maybe this time I may cave.
I wonder what Winston (Churchill) would do?
Amanda is a personal finance specialist and published author based in Auckland, New Zealand. She is also a certified meditation and yoga instructor which informs her teachings on financial wellness.