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When Alex Tu's cat Hidamali became ill with liver disease, the Vancouver resident spared no medical expense.

Hidamali spent three days in an oxygen chamber at a veterinary clinic and was fed through a tube for weeks until she recovered. The vet bill came to about $900.

But for Mr. Tu, there was no other option than to pay it.

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"Hidamali is precious to us, like our child, and doing right by her was the only thing that mattered," he said.

Like Mr. Tu, many pet owners consider their dogs and cats to be members of the family.

And increasingly, employers are recognizing this by adding Fido and Fluffy to their employee benefits plans.

Several major Canadian employers, including Xerox Canada, Purolator Courier, London Drugs and Home Depot, now offer pet insurance as part of their voluntary benefits packages, according to Canada's largest pet insurer, Petplan.

Like voluntary group auto and home insurance, these programs allow employees to purchase pet insurance at a discounted rate, usually at no cost to the employer.

"Employers are looking for a way to stand out in a very competitive job market," said Peter Maconachie, Petplan's director of sales and marketing, noting that many turn to offering pet insurance to help retain staff and recruit new employees.

Sales through group benefits packages have doubled over the past year at Winnipeg-based Petplan, making it one of the company's fastest growing channels, he said.

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According to the Virginia-based professional association, the Society for Human Resource Management, some U.S. companies even pay for pet care while employees are travelling on business.

Compared with home and auto insurance, pet perks are a cuddlier way for companies to reach out to employees and their families, said Dennis Petaski, director of member benefits and services at Strata Benefits Consulting Inc.

Mr. Petaski said his Winnipeg consulting firm helped introduce voluntary pet-insurance packages to more Canadian companies, including Ceridian Canada Ltd., a human-resources firm based in Markham, Ont.

At Ceridian Canada, employees are eligible to receive a 10-per-cent discount on pet insurance, and enrolment fees are waived, said Reg Kehler, Ceridian's manager of benefits.

Although the savings to employees are small (pet insurance typically costs between $10 and $60 a month depending on the animal and extent of coverage), Mr. Kehler said his company saw voluntary pet insurance as a way of improving its overall benefits package.

"We try to ensure that our employees have access to quality benefits that provide protection for all members of the family, including the four-legged ones," he said.

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Even so, only about a dozen of Ceridian's more than 1,450 Canadian employees have enrolled in the pet-insurance program, he said.

Vicki Swires, Ceridian's regional sales manager for Western Canada, signed up her dog Badger, a 5½-year-old bichon/Shih Tzu, for her company's group pet plan.

"It was a no-brainer," Ms. Swires said.

Badger suffered recurring ear infections when he was a puppy, and Ms. Swires estimates the insurance coverage has saved her hundreds of dollars in vet care. She pays about $30 a month for the benefit.

According to John Warden, vice president of insurance for Pethealth Inc.'s PetCare Pet Insurance, based in Oakville, Ont., pet insurance is still a developing industry in Canada.

Currently, only about 2 per cent of the country's pet-owning population has pet insurance, he said.

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Although the number of companies requesting group pet insurance is increasing, getting employees to sign up for it remains a challenge, Mr. Warden said.

Insurers need to enroll enough people to make the benefit worthwhile, he said.

"Pet insurance is something new, and it's something unique and it's something different. So from that perspective, employers love being able to offer it," he said.

But, he said, based on the volume of enrolments, "it's just an issue of whether or not we can deliver it."

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