If you’re wondering how to find the best dog insurance, you’re not alone. Pet health insurance has been around for decades, yet many pet owners are still unclear about how it works, how much it costs and whether it’s worth buying. Read on for all the details.

What is pet insurance?

Pet insurance pays you for a portion of covered medical bills should your dog ever become injured or sick. Pet insurance works differently than human medical insurance in that:

  1. You can see any veterinarian you choose — no need to find “in-network” doctors or veterinary clinics.
  2. You pay your veterinary bill in full at the time of service, and then submit your claim directly to the pet insurance company for reimbursement.
  3. Pet insurance typically only pays for accidents and illnesses. Unless you buy additional wellness coverage, preventive services like annual exams, vaccines, deworming, and spaying or neutering, and teeth cleaning are not covered at all.

“The most important thing to know about purchasing pet health insurance for dogs of any age can be summed up in two words: pre-existing conditions,” says Dr. Emily Tincher, senior director, veterinary relations for Nationwide Pet Insurance. “It’s important to get pet health insurance when pets are young, if possible. The older a pet, the more health issues that are likely to be outside of coverage.”

Pet insurance terms and what they mean

To find the best dog insurance for you, it helps to understand pet insurance terminology. Some of the most important terms to know include:

Premium: The cost to purchase pet insurance for one year, paid either as one annual sum or monthly payments.

Deductible: A flat fee you pay before the insurance kicks in. Deductibles can be annual (you pay just one deductible per year) or per incident/condition (you pay the deductible each time your dog develops a new problem).

Co-Insurance: The percentage of the bill you are responsible for after the company pays for covered services. Co-insurance is separate from the deductible. For instance, if your vet bill is $100 and your co-insurance is 20%, you would be responsible for $20 and the insurance company would reimburse you $80.

Payout: The amount the insurance company reimburses you for your pet’s vet bill. In the example above, $80 of the $100 vet bill is the payout.

Preexisting condition: A documented medical condition your pet has prior to the start of an insurance policy. Nearly all U.S. pet insurance providers exclude pre-existing conditions, which is why it’s best to buy pet insurance while your dog is still young, before he develops any health problems.

Exclusions: Conditions and treatments that are not covered by a policy. Before purchasing a pet insurance policy, find out what is not covered. Some policies exclude genetic conditions in purebred dogs, hip dysplasia and cancer.

Waiting period: The amount of time you must wait between purchasing a pet insurance policy and submitting your first claim. The waiting period might be different for different types of claims. For instance, you might be able to claim an illness or injury 14 days after starting a policy, but you might have to wait six months to submit a claim for an orthopedic condition like hip dysplasia.

Claim limits: Most policies have a maximum reimbursement amount, which may be annual or for the life of the pet (if coverage is continuous).

Understanding dog insurance cost

The cost of pet insurance can vary depending on the type of coverage you want and other factors, including your dog’s breed and age, whether he is spayed or neutered, and where you live.

Puppies are the least expensive to insure. It costs more to insure an adult dog, with the price steadily increasing with the age of the dog. Senior dogs are the most expensive to insure, and, some companies even “age out” a dog after a certain age.

Dr. Tincher points out that after a certain point, even if a senior dog can be insured, there may be so many exclusions because of preexisting conditions that the policy is not really going to be of much use.

The best time to buy pet insurance is when your dog is a puppy. If you have adopted an adult dog, get insurance as soon as you bring your new pet home.

“In general, the younger the dog is, the less likely they will have pre-existing conditions or health concerns when enrolled, so the plan will cover more conditions if needed and coverage also tends to be less expensive for younger pets,” says Jenna Mahan, registered veterinary technician and director of claims at Embrace Pet Insurance.

There’s another good reason for new puppy owners to sign up for pet insurance right away — puppies tend to get sick and hurt more frequently than their older counterparts.

“Puppies are known to do crazy things with costly consequences, from eating random objects, to taking fracturing falls,” says Christie Ross, customer care manager for Pumpkin Pet Insurance. “If emergency surgery is needed, you could be looking at a vet bill of $5k+ for an unexpected accident. Puppies also have more fragile immune systems than adults, making them more susceptible to picking up certain illnesses.”

So how much is dog insurance?

The cost of pet insurance is highly variable, but many companies allow you to customize your plan so you can choose the best pet insurance for your budget. When selecting your policy, you can often choose from different levels of deductible, co-insurance and maximum payouts.

For instance, higher deductibles and co-insurance have lower annual premiums, but you’ll pay more of each vet bill. Lower deductibles and co-insurance have higher annual premiums, but you’ll pay less out of pocket each time your dog sees the vet. Policies with higher maximum payouts also have higher annual premiums.

Pet insurance wellness coverage for dogs

Jenna points out that pet insurance coverage varies based on provider, but typically wellness care isn’t covered. “However, to save on these costs, pet owners should consider looking for a plan that offers ways to help save on preventative and other routine care,” she says.

Many pet insurance companies offer wellness coverage, which you can add to your accident and illness policy for an extra fee. Wellness coverage reimburses you for a portion of well-pet services not covered by your regular policy. This can be helpful to budget for predictable preventive veterinary costs that come up throughout the year. However, sometimes paying out of pocket for well-pet services might be a better option than buying a wellness plan.

“We recommend pet families consult their primary care veterinarian to understand what regular care is recommended for their pet, considering the animal’s breed or mix, size or other lifestyle factors,” Dr. Tincher says. This information considered with your finances helps you decide whether wellness coverage is right for your pet.

How to get pet insurance

The oldest pet insurance company, Nationwide (formerly Veterinary Pet Insurance, or VPI), was the first company to offer pet health insurance in the United States. Forty years later, Nationwide remains the largest provider.

Though the pet insurance market was once quite small, more companies now offer pet insurance than ever before. The growth seen in the pet insurance industry could be attributed to several factors, including increases in pet ownership and pet humanization, especially during the pandemic as people connected and spent more time with their pets.

“Inflation is another reason pet insurance is becoming more popular,” says Preston Turano, veterinarian and spokesperson for AKC Pet Insurance, another longtime pet insurance provider. “Veterinary treatment and costs have also increased, with prices for vet services jumping 10% in the past year. This is the biggest spike on records dating back two decades.”

Along with the older pet insurance providers, many newer companies have entered the market, offering varied pet insurance products. The North American Pet Health Insurance Association (NAPHIA), which is a trade association for the pet insurance industry in the United States and Canada, lists nearly 40 U.S. companies that offer pet insurance, plus nine in Canada. To browse insurance providers, visit NAPHIA’s member page here.

Pet insurance — is it worth it?

Purchasing pet insurance can feel overwhelming, but the variety of companies and insurance products available today means pet owners have the flexibility to choose a policy that fits both their needs and their budget. When researching companies and policies, check online reviews and read policies carefully. If you have a purebred dog, find a plan that does not exclude genetic conditions in purebred dogs. Compare several companies and plans before choosing one to make sure you’re getting something that is a good fit for you and your dog.

In the end, choosing to purchase pet insurance can give you peace of mind. Though you hope you’ll never need to use it, you will be glad you have it if your dog ever becomes seriously sick or injured.