Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

Paying for Pet Care

Got pet health insurance? It’s a must if you never want to choose between your money and your pet’s life

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

When Tiffany Gere of Butler, New Jersey, was considering getting a new puppy recently, she called her pet health insurance company to ask about the cost of adding a new pet to her policy. The advice she received surprised her.

“They said to purchase (coverage) beforehand and call to activate it two weeks before I brought the puppy home,” she says. “It takes two weeks to go into effect, so that way the first vet visit would be covered.”

If you are planning to get a puppy or kitten soon, a young adult pet, or even a fully grown adult animal, pet health insurance can be a good buy. The uptick in companies offering pet health insurance (there are at least 11) has improved coverage, which in the past was criticized for caps on payouts, exclusions for hereditary or congenital conditions, or poor customer service. Competitive pressure means that companies have a greater variety of plans that meet the different needs of pet owners, from the person who wants emergency coverage only to the one who wants help with everyday expenses such as wellness exams, vaccinations and nail trims.

“When I did the math, it was stupid not to have a policy,” Gere says. “Here, a dental exam is $500 or more.”

Bix, a 15-month-old standard poodle who lives with Janine Adams of St. Louis, Missouri, has had several problems covered in his life so far. He had to have eight baby teeth pulled that didn’t fall out on their own. Then he chipped a couple of permanent teeth, which had to be sealed. He also got neutered, had some ear issues and had surgery for an eye condition called entropion.

“In his first year, we paid $744 in premiums and got back $1,406,” Adams says. “That doesn’t count the entropion surgery, which happened in his second year. We got back 90 percent of the $625 that cost.”

What’s covered can surprise you. One plan pays up to $500 for boarding if an owner is hospitalized for more than 48 hours, and up to $500 for ads and reward offers if a pet goes missing. Other costs that may be covered, depending on the plan, include microchipping, massage therapy, therapeutic diets prescribed by your veterinarian and pet activity monitors.

It’s always a good idea to check your policy to see if an incident is covered. Barbara Saunders of Berkeley, California, had an accident policy on a previous dog. She didn’t realize it covered instances of dogs ingesting foreign objects, and failed to use it on the two occasions when it would have paid off.

Submitting claims is easy in the digital age. There’s an app for that. Snap a photo of the invoice with your phone, and the app does the rest. Even without an app, taking a picture of the bill and emailing it is usually all you need to do. Depending on the company, reimbursement usually shows up in two to four weeks.

Gere decided to wait on getting a puppy, but she’s happy with the coverage she has on her collie, Jake. She pays approximately $100 a month for a wellness plan with a $200 deductible, and has been reimbursed $1,261 in the past year. It has paid for exams, bloodwork, medication, heartworm testing and prevention, flea control, and diagnostics and treatment for a urinary tract infection. If needed, her plan also covers laser therapy and acupuncture.

Concerned about the cost? You may work for a company that offers pet health insurance as a benefit. Some 5,000 employers provide it, including EMC, Hewlett-Packard, IKEA, Levi Strauss, Microsoft, T-Mobile, Xerox and Yahoo.

“What I love is that it takes the money out of veterinary decisions for Bix,” Adams says.


Distemper still a

concern in dogs

Q: Does my dog really need a distemper vaccination? Dogs don’t really get that anymore, do they? -- via email

A: Distemper used to be the No. 1 killer of dogs. It may not be as common as it was in the bad old days before a vaccine was developed, but it definitely still exists. So far this year, there have been distemper outbreaks in shelters in California, Tennessee, Maryland and Missouri. My own little QT Pi is a distemper survivor from a shelter.

There’s good reason for distemper being one of the core vaccines all dogs should receive. More than half the adult dogs who get distemper die; in puppies who get the disease, the death rate can be as high as 80 percent. When we see distemper, it’s usually in dogs who haven’t been vaccinated.

Signs of distemper include fever, listlessness, eye and nasal discharge, a dry cough, vomiting, diarrhea and neurological signs. Even if a dog survives distemper, his nervous system and senses of sight, smell and hearing can be irreparably damaged. Some dogs survive distemper but are partially or totally paralyzed. A weakened immune system makes them more susceptible to pneumonia.

Another important reason for vaccinating dogs is that the distemper virus is highly contagious. It’s usually transmitted through contact with an infected dog’s mucus, watery secretions from the eyes or nose, urine or feces. It can also be airborne or carried on the bottoms of shoes. Wild canines such as coyotes or foxes can spread the distemper virus. A healthy but unvaccinated dog can contract distemper without ever coming in physical contact with an infected animal.

Puppies and young adult dogs are most susceptible to infection, but it’s not unheard of for older dogs to become infected. Most cases occur in young puppies who are 2 to 4 months old. The younger they are, the more severe the disease. -- Dr. Marty Becker

Do you have a pet question? Send it to or visit


Three companies

issue food recalls

-- Several pet food manufacturers issued recalls last month. They include Hunk of Beef from Evanger’s Dog & Cat Food of Illinois, possibly contaminated with the drug pentobarbital; Against the Grain Pulled Beef with Gravy Dinner for Dogs from Against the Grain Pet Food, also for potential pentobarbital contamination; and Blue Buffalo Homestyle Recipe Healthy Weight Chicken Dinner with Garden Vegetables, after some of the food was found to contain pieces of metal. Check company websites or call for the lot numbers of affected products. You can return them for a full refund.

-- You’re not imagining things if your dog’s personality seems to mirror your own. Researchers at Austria’s University of Vienna found that dogs not only recognize our emotions, they also tend to share them. In a study published last month in PLOS One, researchers measured heart rate, threat response and cortisol variability -- a measure of the ability to manage stress -- in 132 people and their dogs. People were assessed for personality hallmarks -- neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness -- and surveyed about their dogs’ personalities. The results? Relaxed people have relaxed, friendly dogs, while anxious or pessimistic people have dogs who are less able to cope with stress.

-- Jet-setting pets can soon relax in luxury at a new terminal just for them at New York City’s JFK International Airport. Known as The Ark, the completed facility will have a 20,000-square-foot resort for dogs and cats with massage therapy and “pawdicures,” plus a bone-shaped pool for dogs and a jungle gym for cats. A 24-hour veterinary clinic, 48 horse stalls, and an aviary are among the other amenities. Currently, the Equine & Livestock Export Center, Aviary In-Transit Quarantine and Pet Oasis, an animal wellness center, are open for business. The second and third phases open later this year. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker


Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by “The Dr. Oz Show” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.