Illustration by Jared Scroggins

Justin Balchun’s dog, Dodge, a 7-year-old Lab mix, loves to run around and jump off a dock to go swimming in the St. Mary’s River on weekends. So when the dog began to limp and whine two years ago, the Gaithersburg resident brought his pet to the veterinarian. The vet referred Balchun to an orthopedic specialist, who ran tests and determined that Dodge needed surgery to repair a ruptured knee ligament. 

“I was relieved to know it could be fixed,” says Balchun, 32, owner of Balchun Construction. “I knew he had to have it. I had no hesitation.” 

The decision to go ahead with Dodge’s surgery was easy, Balchun says, in part because he had followed his vet’s recommendation and purchased a pet insurance policy for $40 a month when the dog was 6 months old. Once Balchun met the deductible—$125 per incident or illness—his insurance company, Trupanion, reimbursed him for $3,500 of the $4,550 he’d paid for office visits, X-rays and the operation.  

According to the American Pet Products Association, about 68 percent of households in the U.S., or about 85 million homes, have a pet. In 2016, about 25 percent of the approximately $67 billion spent on pets went to medical care. The costs add up: CT scans run from $450 to $1,000; chemotherapy for a dog who has cancer can cost several thousand dollars. If your dog eats something he shouldn’t—like a sock or some sugar-free gum—you could end up with high vet bills. 

Darryl Rawlings, CEO of Seattle-based Trupanion, says owners aren’t always aware of the costs of diagnostic tests, hospital stays or surgery for an animal. According to Kristen Lynch, executive director of the North American Pet Health Insurance Association (NAPHIA), only 1 to 2 percent of pets—more dogs than cats—are covered by insurance. Rawlings says that percentage is rising. “Since the industry is relatively new in North America, many pet owners don’t know that medical insurance for pets exists in the first place—and most don’t expect their pet will ever get a costly injury or illness,” he says. 

Some pet insurance plans cover accident and illness. Others are accident only, and there are also policies that include wellness care, such as vaccines. Premiums average about $36 a month for a dog for accident and illness plans, according to NAPHIA, but the cost depends on your deductible, the reimbursement percentage, plan limits and the animal’s health profile. 

“It’s important to understand what you can afford and look for a plan that has the type of coverage you think you would use the most,” says Janet Ruiz, spokesperson for the New York-based Insurance Information Institute. Some dog breeds are more likely to develop certain health problems—German shepherds are prone to hip dysplasia, dachshunds to intervertebral disc disease—so pet owners should look closely to see if a plan covers pre-existing or congenital conditions.   

Health problems were the last thing Cristina Vaughan’s family imagined when they got their golden retriever, Lucas, last spring. But at 3 months old, the dog started limping, and they didn’t know why. “It was like having a very old dog in a puppy body,” says Vaughan, who lives in Bethesda with her husband and three teenagers.

The breeder offered to take the dog back, but Vaughan’s family had already fallen in love with him. Last November, Lucas had a complex surgery to remove excess cartilage between the joints on both of his elbows, the result of a developmental defect called fragmented coronoid process. The family’s pet insurance policy, which they’d purchased when Lucas was 2 months old, paid for 90 percent of the tests, surgery and follow-up treatment, including Lucas’ weekly therapy sessions on an underwater treadmill, saving them thousands of dollars. Four months later, Lucas is back to himself again.

“You wouldn’t consider, as a parent, going without health insurance for a child,” Vaughan says. “I wouldn’t want to have to make the decision of not treating a dog because we couldn’t afford it.”