I n these straightened times is it barking mad to be shelling out £28 a month on pet insurance for your dog? Or what about almost £13 a month for cat cover? These are the average amounts Brits are paying, according to financial research company Defaqto. Pet life insurance.
But there are plenty of people out there paying a great deal more – sometimes as much as £60 a month-plus for a premium policy for an older dog. And, of course, there are millions who don't have any cover at all.
A Guardian Money snapshot survey suggests that for a moggy, the insurance arm of Homebase, of all people, is a good bet for cheap, fairly decent no-frills cover. Meanwhile, dog owners looking for the most comprehensive type of cover, known as "lifetime" (ie, cover for life), should check out specialists such as Animal Friends, Marks & Spencer and John Lewis.
So, should you take it out? How much should you pay? And what's covered? Here's our step by step guide.
Decide whether or not you want to take out cover Pet insurance is primarily designed to cover the cost of vet fees for the treatment of illness and injury. Other policy benefits can include meeting the cost of advertising, and rewards for lost and stolen pets, and paying for looking after your animal if you have to go into hospital.
However, the majority of Brits either haven't got round to taking out cover or have decided not to bother – it's estimated almost half of the nation's dogs, and well over two-thirds of Britain's cats, are uninsured.
As to whether you should have it …well, that's horses for courses (sorry about the animal metaphor). Many people will be happy to take their chances. Others will feel it's worth paying for the peace of mind.
Bargain basement or gold-plated? You will soon discover that choosing "the best" policy for your needs is no easy task – there are hundreds of policies out there, and they vary hugely in price and in terms of what they offer. Many providers offer several different levels of cover.
There are four main types of policy:
• Lifetime – this covers vet fees up to a certain amount per year and, provided you renew your policy, it gives you the same amount of cover each year no matter how many claims you make. It's usually the priciest, but means you are covered if your pet develops a long-term condition such as diabetes which, for a dog, could mean ongoing costs of £100 a month (daily insulin injections, regular check-ups etc) for the rest of its life.
• Maximum benefit – provides a maximum amount of vet fees cover per condition. But once the financial limit has been reached, the condition becomes a pre-existing condition and is excluded from future claims.
Rop term life insurance
• Time limited – also known as "12 month". Again there is a maximum per condition, but there's also a limit of one year during which vet fees can be paid for each condition, after which it is excluded from cover.
• Accident only - covers treating accidental injuries, such as being hit by a car (some policies also cover illnesses that result from an accident).
Where do I start? Probably your best bet is to try one of the insurance comparison websites. This will give you a flavour of what you can expect to pay. You will need to key in details about yourself and your pet. Some sites will want your pet's date of birth, how much you paid for it, and its microchip number.
Guardian Money gave a spin. We asked the site to quote on a female moggy, aged four next month, and a three-year-old male working cocker spaniel.
On the cat front, Animal Friends' accident-only policy was cheapest at £3.83 a month, but for only a little more – £4.27 a month – Homebase would sell us a lifetime policy. However, the amount of annual cover for vet fees is capped at £1,000. Many other policies offer much higher amounts. Annoyingly, the website said Marks & Spencer and More Th>n were unable to quote for our moggy.
When it came to canine cover, the policies started at £4.29 a month, but the cheapest lifetime policy was from Animal Friends at £14.73 a month. The amount of annual cover for vet fees was pretty generous at £20,000, with a £2,000 limit per condition per year.
Where you live matters "Just as with car and home insurance, your postcode matters," says Clare Francis at comparison site Moneysupermarket.com. Vet costs influence the premiums charged – generally, in urban areas such as London, they are higher than in rural areas, and premiums will reflect this.
Age makes a difference, too When your cat or dog reaches a certain age – usually between eight and 10 – you could well see a leap in the cost of your cover, says Francis. In some cases, premiums have doubled in the space of two years. Some owners say that, as a result, they can no longer afford to insure their pets.
"As your pet ages, the premium and policy excess are likely to increase because, like humans, the risk of illness increases," says the Association of British Insurers.
Some people may struggle to get new cover for an older animal, though if you took out the policy when your pet was younger, it can usually be continued with the same provider... for a price.
Is the excess excessive? Pay particular attention to the policy excess (what the policyholder must pay towards the cost of the claim). "Excesses have been creeping up," says Francis. They used to be around £40-£50 – now they are often £75, some £100-plus. The cheapest premiums often mask a high excess.
You pay for pedigree Pedigree dogs and cats are normally more expensive to insure as they are more likely to suffer from specific illnesses. That particularly applies to certain breeds of dog. For example, labradors can be prone to hip problems, says Francis.
What's not covered? Pre-existing medical conditions won't be covered – this also applies if you change your insurance provider, regardless of whether you've ever made a claim. Preventative and routine treatments, such as neutering, vaccinations and flea and worm control, will also be excluded, as will anything related to pregnancy/birth.
What you might pay
We asked to quote the monthly premium for a female moggy, aged four next month, based in London E17, and a three-year-old male working cocker spaniel based in Epsom, Surrey (both illness-free).
Cheapest "lifetime" policies (good for ongoing conditions):
Homebase £4.27. Annual vet fees limit: £1,000, and the amount of cover each year for each separate medical condition is also limited to £1,000. Excess: £75
Argos £8.69. Unlimited annual vet fees; £7,000 maximum for a single condition. Excess: £65
Animal Friends £8.87. Vet fees limit: £20,000 a year, £2,000 max for single condition. Excess: £99
Cheapest "maximum benefit" policies (good for expensive single claims):
Asda £6.81. Unlimited vet fees; £6,000 max single condition. Excess: £80
Best and cheapest term life insurance
Animal Friends £14.73. Vet fees limit: £20,000; £2,000 max single condition. Excess: £99
Marks & Spencer £19.30. Vet fees limit: £4,000; £1,000 max single condition. Excess: £90
The Green Insurance Company £19.60. Vet fees limit: £20,000; £2,000 max single condition. Excess: £60
The Green Insurance Company £15.19. Unlimited vet fees; £2,000 max single condition. Excess: £60
Debenhams £16.12. Unlimited vet fees; £2,000 max single condition. Excess: £100.