It didn't look much different from most emergency rooms. The people waiting looked grim, the patients unhappy, suffering mostly in silence.

"It's $40 to see the doctor," repeated the receptionist in her hospital monotone, "plus charges for treatment."

Nothing about Blue Cross or hospitalization, no stacks of forms to fill out?

Not in this emergency room. The patient was a dog.

You're laughing? The injury to the yellow labrador might sound funny (he had a run-in with a table's sharp end and wagged off a chunk of his tail), but the bill wasn't. The initial visit to the emergency clinic, X-rays, surgery to amputate an inch of bone so the skin could be closed, antibiotics, and several follow-up visits to the family vet cost well over $300. Luckily, the family could afford it.

The alternative? There was none.

But come next month, at least in California, all that may change. That's when Veterinary Pet Insurance is scheduled to be made available to the public. VPI is a division of California Veterinary Service (CVS), a corporation founded in 1980 to provide low-cost coverage for just such accidents.

Why pet insurance? According to the veterinarians who founded the program, the incentive for pet health insurance isn't all that different from that for the human variety most Americans can't live without.

"It's now very rare that we can't do something to help a sick animal," says Dr. Thomas Kendall, a Sacramento veterinarian and CVS' spokesman. "The question is whether the client can afford it. In too many cases the only alternative is euthanasia."

Kendall says the problem is not only that veterinary costs are skyrocketing -- to set up a practice similar to his two-man operation in northern California would run, he says, more than $300,000 -- but that technology to deal with previously fatal ailments also is exploding. Much of that technology is accidental: the byproduct of pioneering research for ultimate use on humans. Veterinarians, nevertheless, are finding themselves able to save animals' lives by implanting heart pacemakers or using laser surgery. Unfortunately, the costs can be too much for owners to bear.

To deal with the growing gap between what pet owners want for their pets and what they're able (or willing) to pay, CVS was born. According to Kendall, pet insurance is a phenomenon whose time has arrived. Since advertisements were posted in 500 of the state's 1,700 veterinary hospitals last November, more than 35,000 people have sent for further information, and Kendall says responses are still coming in at the rate of 300-500 daily.

Of course, pet insurance has been tried before. And failed before. According to Guy Hodge, director of information services for The Humane Society of the United States, more than 35 different plans have come and gone since 1945.

CVS knows that the track record on pet insurance programs is not a good one. But, they claim, their widespread support and the fact that VPI will be sold directly through local veterinarians should help their program succeed.

Under the California plan, pet owners have the option of purchasing catastrophe insurance only or catastrophe insurance coupled with sickness and major medical coverage. Pre-existing conditions, intentional injuries and congenital or hereditary defects will not be covered.

A major problem in the past, according to HSUS' Hodge, is the lack of accurate actuarial tables for dogs. (Actuarial tables are the basis for all insurance coverage. They're also why you know how much you should weigh.) At the outset, rates for dogs will vary according to age and whether it belongs to the hound group (which, according to the CVS survey, has higher medical costs).

For instance, accident-only insurance for a 4-month-old golden retriever would cost $22 per year; the same policy for a 4-month-old beagle, $32. Rates for cats also vary by age, but also by sex, with males costing more.

Neither plan includes routine procedures such as vaccinations or spay/neuter operations, nor does either plan cover such nagging and frequent difficulties as worms or flea infestations. The reason, according to Kendall, is to keep premium costs down to the bare minimum.

"Based on a random survey we conducted, we found that 40 percent of all visits to veterinarians were for vaccinations," he says, "so excluding them from the policy cut premiums by 50 percent." That same survey also showed that the average visit to a veterinarian cost the pet owner $32.

Kendall stresses that VPI is not intended as a prepaid health plan. (There is a $25-deductible for each incident required under both plans.) It will, however, protect pet owners in case of accident or serious illness.

While Hodge concedes that catastrophe insurance for pets is desirable, he points out that there are still problems with pet insurance plans.

"Insurance means shared risk," he says, "but the people who buy pet insurance are by and large the ones who need it most."

Among other anticipated problems: Those with insurance will be less discriminating about when to take their pet to the vet, which will drive costs up for everyone, and the difficulty of policing a system to keep those with similar animals from cheating.

Californian Kendall, however, remains confident. He points out that because of the deductible, and because the plan only pays 80 percent of the ultimate bill, the rush to the vet with a small scratch will not present a problem. He is less certain about identification problems, although under his plan, insured breeders will be required to tattoo their animals.

"We're also looking into instituting better ID methods," he says, "including nose prints or the development of a quick and easy tattoo."

Finally, unlike most of the other plans tried in the past, VPI is awaiting approval by the California Department of Insurance, which will oversee operations to insure it maintains adequate cash reserves.

Consumers and pet owners alike are watching and waiting to see how VPI fares. If it flies, there are inklings that it may be sold nationally.

Perhaps the day will come when the receptionist in the emergency animal clinic will demand name, address and insurance policy number.