Pet insurance - best friend or can it bite you?
Christmas is a popular time to buy children or loved ones a puppy or kitten, but with pets come trips to the vets - and their bills.
Pets are living longer, thanks to better research and technology. That is good news if your furry friend is a member of the family but bad news if you have to end up paying thousands of pounds to keep your pet healthy.
For many owners, pet insurance is considered to be the answer and the industry is now worth around £700m.
But is pet insurance worth the premium, or does the cost outweigh the benefit?
Devotion to dogs
Sylvia Brady's two dogs, Megan and Wilson, both needed eye operations last year. Ms Brady has a pet insurance policy and claimed with no real problem.
"Both dogs were insured from puppies," she says. "We've had them from when they were eight weeks old, they both needed eye surgery, something called cherry eye. The vet dealt with it very well and we were pleased with the outcome.
"However, at the end of the year when the renewal came up, the premiums had gone up by 40%.
"Because they are young dogs and obviously we want to keep them healthy we will keep insuring them."
Despite the higher premiums, she was happy with the treatment her dogs received and the way in which her claim was dealt with, but not everyone has had that kind of positive experience.
The latest figures from the Financial Ombudsman Service show there were 830 new complaints about pet insurers in 2012-13, an increase of 50% on the previous year.
However, only 32% of those complaints were upheld, a big change on the previous year when more than 50% were upheld.
Types of cover
Mark Effenberg, the chief executive of Healthy Pets Insurance, is not surprised by the figures.
"Pet insurance has been the fastest-growing sector for several years so the number of dogs and cats insured has definitely gone up," he says.
"About 18% of the UK pet population is now insured, therefore there will be complaints coming through."
There are two main types of pet insurance to choose from:
- Lifetime cover, which offers a set amount of cover that renews each year
- Non-lifetime cover, which limits how much is paid per condition before it is excluded
- There are also policies which only cover accidents and injuries, but not medical conditions or problems
Rory Cusack is a vet and owner of Westside Veterinary Clinic in south-west London. He believes that pet owners need to get the right type of insurance from the start.
"Good quality means lifelong cover," he suggests. "Any of these policies that run year to year are hardly worth having, because you'll get an incident, there'll be an exclusion put on that for life and nobody else will touch it."
More and more of the pet owners he sees have pet insurance.
"I think it is on the increase," he says. "The awareness of vets' fees being potentially ruinous is encouraging people to take it up."
Of course, whatever policy pet owners decide to go for, it is always very important to read the small print and to be sure of what is in the policy.
"If your dog or cat has had a condition before they often won't pay out again or only up to a certain limit the first time," warns consumer journalist James Daley.
"They also won't pay if your dog gets sick from a condition which they could have been vaccinated against and then anything to do with pregnancy.
"So there are a lot of things in that small print and you really need to be careful when you are buying that policy to make sure you get one that's right for you."
He also warns that even when owners have made a successful claim, things can become more complicated.
An owner trying to switch their insurance to a new provider might find that they will not cover the condition that they have already claimed for, he says.
"So the only way that you can get cover for the old condition is staying with your insurer," he suggests.
The correct policy can depend on what type of animal is being insured and what particular breed it is. Price comparison websites are not always able to distinguish between the many different variables associated with pet insurance.
The advice from experts is that owners should talk to their vet about what policy is appropriate for their pet before shopping around.