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Tilt, pictured in this photo taken at home in Toronto, Wed. Feb. 16, 2011, was adopted with a ruptured ear drum and two BB gun bullets in his stomach, making him a questionable candidate for pet insurance. (Joe O'Connal/THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Joe O'Connal)
Tilt, pictured in this photo taken at home in Toronto, Wed. Feb. 16, 2011, was adopted with a ruptured ear drum and two BB gun bullets in his stomach, making him a questionable candidate for pet insurance. (Joe O'Connal/THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Joe O'Connal)

Household finances

Is pet insurance worth it when costly vet bills arise? Add to ...

Silver tabby, male, neutered, vaccinated, lame leg and tilted head.

Among all the sweet-looking kittens and cats at Toronto Cat Rescue, we chose this one; although perhaps it would be more apt to say – as pet owners often do – that he chose us.

The head tilt that inspired our cat's name was caused by an untreated ear infection that ruptured his ear drum and permanently threw off his balance.

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When Tilt was in for his preliminary vet visit, an X-ray revealed the cat had also been shot, with two BB gun pellets still lodged in a fleshy part of his stomach.

Tilt's vet said the problems should not lead to higher health-care costs, but with a medical history like this, my boyfriend and I were worried about how to prepare our finances for an emergency.

We were given six weeks of free pet insurance through Petsecure, an option that I had never thought about, but seemed a logical consideration for a cat that came with a head tilt and two bullets.

Only one or two per cent of Canadian pet owners have pet insurance, but it is becoming more popular as veterinary medicine becomes more advanced and expensive.

Many vet offices have brochures that claim the security of insurance can reduce stress when emotional and expensive decisions arise.

However, some pet owners – unhappy with premium increases, rejected claims or reduced coverage – say they'd rather self-insure by tucking away money each month with the guarantee that when the time comes, they'll be covered.

After speaking with vets and pet owners, I'm weighing the benefits and drawbacks of each investment approach given the unique medical history of our Tilt.

There are several pet insurers in Canada from various animal-care societies to PC Financial, each of which offers several intricate plans ranging from accident-only to unlimited plans that include annual check ups (most do not).

Randy Valpy, president and CEO of Petsecure, Canada's largest pet insurer, assured me that the investment is worth the money for every pet – even a cat like Tilt, whose pre-existing conditions exclude him from coverage for the medical issues I'm concerned about.

“Insurance for pets is no different from home or auto or anything else. It's there to protect you and provide you with peace of mind,” he says.

Mr. Valpy reminds me that there are a host of medical conditions – most of which cost a lot more than treatment for an ear infection – that can arise in seemingly healthy pets. Cancer treatments for example can cost over $10,000.

His assessment of the illnesses that Tilt's plan would not cover is vague, but seems to include any ear or stomach issues that result from the pre-existing conditions – a determination that would be made by the vet treating him.

“We don't get a lot like him,” Mr. Valpy says.

When I call the hotline to inquire about Tilt's pre-existing conditions, the sympathetic customer service representative is not much more helpful in pin pointing specific exclusions. It's only possible to ascertain once you've signed up and your pet's medical records are submitted, she says.

Lacking specifics makes my choice more difficult, so I call veterinarian David Kerr at North Hill Animal Hospital in Bolton, Ont., who warns me there's probably nothing a vet could say to the insurance company that would convince it to insure Tilt for those areas.

“If you're expecting your kitty to have problems because of the bullet, then the insurance probably isn't any good,” he says.

“But having all these other potential things that can happen with cats, insurance would help you allay the costs of those medical expenses.”

Dr. Kerr says he always recommends coverage because most Canadians are unaware of how much pet health care costs. In Dr. Kerr's experience, insurers have been willing to accept claims and he's seen it save owners thousands of dollars.

“You're buying insurance because you're gambling that your pet is going to get sick, and the company is giving you insurance and gambling that your pet is not going to get sick, so really its who wins the gamble,” Dr. Kerr says.

But I'm still worried that given Tilt's exclusions, an insurance plan might be risky.

I've heard from pet owners who bought insurance and regret it, and also from those who have gone into debt to pay astronomical bills and wish they had been covered.

When I seek out the advice of a dog owner named Victoria, she tells me that she cancelled her policy in favour of an emergency savings account.

Victoria took out a policy the day she adopted her Dalmatian but became fed up with rising premiums — which started at around $60 per month but increased to around $88 per month in four years — even as her insurer began to reject her claims.

"We were paying them thousands and we were paying thousands in vet bills that they wouldn't cover... for $88 a month, you should be able to claim whatever."

When her dog was around three, Victoria decided to invest that money through a payroll savings bond that is deducted from her paycheque automatically.

It was enough to pay off a "colossal" vet bill near the end of the Dalmatian's life — $7,000 for a spinal cord injury.

For Tilt, the average mid-range cat insurance plan that covers 80 per cent of costs and up to about $2,500 per claim works out to about $300 a year, plus a $200 annual deductible.

Vet bills for our young and healthy, if lop-sided cat, aren't likely to cost $500 a year. But if I opt to put the money aside myself I must be diligent enough to commit to monthly payments and dedicated enough to ignore the money if some other household emergency comes up.

Either way, I've learned that investing in Tilt's health now–whether it be through personal savings or a pet insurance policy – acts as protection against a potentially heart-wrenching decision if he ever needs a $5,000 surgery.

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