Pet health insurance sales are jumping like a spooked cat in a viral video.

Last year, U.S. pet owners spent more than $1 billion on insurance — up 23 percent — and more than 1.8 million cats and dogs are now covered — up more than 17 percent — according to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association.

Demand is driven by an irresistible promise from insurers: affordable, lifetime health care for your beloved Woof or Kitty.

But a two-month Consumers’ Checkbook investigation found that most accident and illness plans end up being neither affordable nor lifelong.

Price hikes

Most buyers sign up for insurance when their pets are young and monthly premiums are lowest. But four or five years later, the premiums most companies charge start to rise — purely because the pets get older. Sooner or later, the price may become unaffordable.

How unaffordable? Take a male mixed-breed dog insured by Pets Best in the District. Enrolled as a puppy, his premium would be $35 a month, but by age 8, that more than doubles, to $83. By age 12, it’s $149 per month, or almost $1,800 per year.

Thus, over a nearly 13-year lifetime, that tail-wagging $35-a-month premium grows into a rabid $11,172 in total premiums.

And those age-based premium increases don’t include future veterinary price inflation, which will probably add even more to the monthly bill.

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Studying pricing at nine insurance companies — making up the vast majority of the pet-insurance business — Checkbook found age-based price hikes at Nationwide, the largest pet insurer; AKC and PetPartners (both brands are underwritten by the same insurer); ASPCA and Hartville (two other brands sold by one insurer); Embrace; Figo; and Petplan. Two companies studied, Healthy Paws and Trupanion, don’t raise prices with a pet’s advancing age.

At most companies, “premiums are generally low during pet adolescent years and sharply increase as the pet ages,” Trupanion told the Washington State Office of the Insurance Commissioner in a 2016 regulatory rate filing. “Policy owners do not often expect this and are likely to [cancel] the policy when this occurs,” the filing says.

Consequently, market research shows the average policyholder insures not for the life of their pet but for only three years, according to the Trupanion ­filing.

Costs can outweigh benefits

The hidden cost of premiums is alarming, but it could be justifiable if you get proportionately high benefits in return. So, Checkbook conducted an in-depth cost/benefit analysis.

Checkbook’s undercover shoppers gathered premium quotes and worked with the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine to develop a reasonable basket of vet services for two model pets: Woof, a medium-size, male mixed-breed dog, and Kitty, a male mixed-breed cat, from age 2 months through 12 years. Researchers then applied the fine-print rules of nine accident and illness insurance plans with similar key options and terms.

Overall, insurance was a worse deal when Woof and Kitty were lucky to have only low to moderate health problems, and a better deal when they suffered lots of medical problems. But the problem with spending so much to insure against disaster is that the odds of calamity are fairly long. Every six seconds a pet owner faces a vet bill of $1,000 or more, according to PetInsuranceQuotes.com, an online marketplace. Pet insurers also cite this statistic. That sounds scary, but in a country of 185 million cats and dogs, that’s about a 3 percent chance over a year.

Meanwhile, the average annual pet-insurance premium in 2017 was $516, while the average annual vet bill per pet the same year was $92. Even if you focus on insured pets, the risk is rarely disastrous. The owners of 8 percent of Embrace’s insured cats filed claims for lymphoma in 2016, and the company’s highest-cost cancer claim was almost $15,000. But the average cost of cat cancer without insurance was a lot less: about $2,900.

At the same time, the owners of 17 percent of Embrace’s insured dogs filed claims for cruciate ligament injuries, and the insurer’s claim for repair was $21,047. But the average for that treatment without insurance was $4,500, Embrace said.

The most common claims are for minor problems. In 2016, the top three claims for dogs insured by Embrace were for diarrhea, vomiting and ear infections. The average cost of care without insurance to treat intestinal issues was $861; for ear infections it was $324, according to Embrace.

The bottom line is that the value of pet insurance depends on the level of illness and injury claims you make. “If you use it, it has value; if you don’t, it doesn’t,” said Kristen Lynch, executive director of NAPHIA.

Checkbook’s recommendation: Instead of buying pet insurance to pay the high costs of vet care, focus on cutting those costs by shopping around for the lowest price on the veterinary services you need. When Checkbook’s shoppers did that in the Washington area, they found price differences and savings of hundreds of dollars for the same vet services. Because shopping around is difficult in an emergency, research options ahead of time.

Tips for buying pet insurance

Lynch argues that the standard of value in pet insurance is not found in scoring more benefits than you pay in premiums; rather, you’re buying peace of mind knowing that you’re covered against the risk of being inundated by vet bills.

If you have the bucks, and you’re willing to pay any price for advanced veterinary medicine to save your seriously ill or injured pet, here’s how to find the best pet insurers and get the best deal:

● Before buying, learn how your premium will increase as your pet ages by using the insurer’s online quote engine. First, get a monthly premium quote using your pet’s age; then get quotes for the 10 or 12 ensuing years. Multiply each age’s monthly premium by 12; then add up all the resulting annual premiums to estimate what insurance will cost over that period.

● Understand what’s not covered. A leading complaint to regulators is claims being rejected for conditions or treatments not covered by the policy. No policy covers preexisting conditions, and some conditions that are covered may be considered preexisting if they develop up to a year after you enroll. If your pet is ill or injured, the diagnostic exam is often not covered by many plans, even though the treatment is covered. Follow-up exams for that covered condition are often not covered, either. Those $50 to $100 exam fees amount to a hidden added deductible.

● Avoid claim rejection for a preexisting condition by insuring your pet when it’s a puppy or kitten — before it has a chance to develop a preexisting condition (but don’t forget the caveat above). You can typically enroll when your pet is 6 to 8 weeks of age.

● Forget add-ons for wellness, preventive and elective care. When Checkbook added up the lifetime costs of Woof’s routine care, about $2,400, and used that information to compare Nationwide’s Major Medical illness and injury plan with its Whole Pet with Wellness plan, it found that adding wellness coverage was a poor deal. Total lifetime Whole Pet premiums for Woof were much higher — almost $11,400 more — almost five times the dog’s lifetime wellness costs. For moderate-problem Woof, that helped raise the owner’s total out-of-pocket costs by about $9,900 with Whole Pet, 70 percent more than with Major Medical. Even for high-problem Woof, Whole Pet cost the policyholder $260 more in out-of-pocket costs vs. Major Medical, a 1 percent increase.

● Consider accident-only policies, which cover injuries but not illness and can be considerably less expensive. ASPCA would charge Woof $35 a month for its accident-only plan, a price that doesn’t increase with age.

● You must pay premiums every month, but you may or may not have to pay deductibles and co-pays, depending on your pet’s health. So it may be worth it to cut your premium costs by increasing your deductible, reducing the percent reimbursed, and choosing an annual limit of only $5,000 or $10,000 instead of unlimited. These are standard insurance cost-reduction tactics, but be aware that they shift more of the risk of future vet bills to you.

Washington Consumers’ Checkbook (Checkbook.org) is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates.

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