Pet insurance seems right “in the moment” but can fetch heavy long-term costs, too.

I was 2,000 miles from home on a week-long work trip when I got the late-night call. Our five year-old lab mix Barrett lay paralyzed and unable to stand, let alone walk, after a slip in the night on the kitchen’s tile floor.

Thankfully, our very cool neighbors helped mommy get the hefty boy delicately to the car and off to the emergency veterinarian. The diagnosis: three herniated disks in Barrett’s neck and upper back, requiring immediate surgery with no guarantee he’ll ever walk again. The cost, $7,000 plus.

Barrett’s journey is continued below. However, his suffering is one of thousands of similar unpredictable crises faced by pet owners every year. In so many cases, the prohibitive cost can lead to the heart-wrenching decision to humanely end the animal’s life. Certainly, no one wants to be placed in this winless situation. That’s why ─ and because Americans own more dogs and cats than ever ─ pet insurance is on the rise.

Barrett recuperating post surgery

Currently, about 2 million pets are insured in the U.S. and Canada, according the North American Pet Health Insurance Association ─ a 17% rise from last year ─ representing $1.15 billion in premium. Most coverage is for accidents and illnesses combined with wellness packages.

PROS

In theory, pet insurance offers a financial safety net against expenses to treat illnesses, injuries and other veterinarian treatments. Like most insurance, you pay a premium for partial or complete coverage of a wide range of predictable or unexpected costs.

Seems pretty straightforward. But there’s more to it.

On the plus side, policies have improved in the last 10 years. Coverage generally is more comprehensive. The gamut of coverage today can range from preventative to wellness care, like routine exams and dental hygiene. As we feed our pets much better food now than decades ago, they’re living longer, which means more trips to the vet for whatever reason. Any pet owner paying attention will attest how these visits can add up.

Pet insurance can also provide outlier protection, such as emergency clinic tests and diagnosis, surgeries, hospitalization and boarding, special meds, vitamins and food, as well as behavioral and alternative therapies and, sadly but inevitably, final expenses.

Meanwhile, more companies are jumping into the mix, which at least can lead to some price competition. On the other hand, would they enter a business that didn’t appear profitable to them?

CONS

This leads us to the downside, which generally revolves around cost. I’m not suggesting we place a price tag on our love for our pets. Rather, just consider that the odds are low that yours will need catastrophic emergency care.  Conversely, the total long-term expenses of preventative care will generally be lower than the premiums for pet insurance over the pet’s lifetime.

In fact, without a major expense in the picture, most owners paid more in premiums than for routine out-of-pocket expenses over a 13+-year average dog’s lifespan, according to a Checkbook.org study. Bottom line: the average annual premium is $516, while the average 12-month claim was $278.

Factors that go into premiums are age, current health prognosis, coverage level, deductible amount, and annual coverage caps. All are weighed separately, which can really dial-up the cost.

Yes, it makes sense to buy it when your pet is young. It’s cheaper then. But even this incentive evaporates as the pet ages. And if Rover is already sick or has a history of illnesses, your coverage will very likely exclude such pre-existing conditions.

Pet insurance rarely covers pet liability, such as when Rex nips the paper carrier’s finger off. (The good news is such mischievousness is often covered on homeowner’s, and you still got your morning news fix.)

What’s more, hereditary conditions for certain breeds are typically not covered either. For instance, expenses to treat hip degeneration, which is more common in Labradors, could be excluded (one more burden Barrett is not looking forward to).

SHOULD YOU GET PET INSURANCE?

I can’t answer that for you. It’s a financial and emotional call for each pet owner. The heart of the decision is whether you’re willing and able to cover the high expense of a major event that will help ensure your four-legged family member can stick around.

As for us, following Barrett’s situation we still decided against buying it. But in doing the homework that led us to that decision, I thought it helpful to share our experience and what we learned.

It was a difficult path to Barrett’s recovery, dotted with long spells sitting by his side to tend his “personal needs” over two-plus weeks until he worked up the strength just to lift his head, then stand and finally take his first steps.” He won’t be leaping for frisbees in his life. But he’s with us, and walking, albeit unsteadily, in the comfort of familiar surroundings, countless tacked-down area rugs and daddy-Rick’s love.