By Eileen AJ Connelly — AP Personal Finance Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — It's a common remark for those devoted to their pooches: "I spend more on my dog's health care than I do on my own!"
Dog owners can expect to pay a few hundred dollars a year for routine veterinary care, but a serious illness could send the bills soaring into the thousands.
One way to protect yourself is to buy pet health insurance.
It's still not that common. Less than 1 percent of pets are insured in the U.S., according to Petplan USA — one of just 13 plans available in the U.S. The company was founded by British natives Natasha and Chris Ashton, who said that in England, over 20 percent of all pets are insured and in Sweden the figure is close to 50 percent.
The couple started the company, which is affiliated with Petplan UK, after they ended up with a $5,000 bill to treat their cat, and were surprised at their limited choices. One of main reasons people have to give up their pets is the cost of care, Natasha Ashton noted. In addition to selling plans directly to owners, Petplan also offers insurance through The Humane Society.
Most people don't start looking for pet insurance until they face a big vet bill, said Michael Hemstreet, who runs Pet Insurance Review, a Web site for comparative shopping.
"But not one of the companies will cover a preexisting condition," he explained. "It's like if I don't have car insurance and get in an accident, and then try to apply for auto insurance."
Many pet insurance companies also will not issue new policies for older animals.
Hemstreet noted that pet insurance is technically property insurance, and many plans come with numerous restrictions. For example, there may be exclusions for genetic problems or exemptions for conditions known to certain breeds, such as hip displaysia in Labrador retrievers and German shepherds.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates pet insurance costs at about $225 per year, but the price can more than double for older dogs. Many companies offer discounts for coverage of multiple pets.
In general, plans cover about 80 percent of pet medical bills, including routine checkups, vaccinations and tests. Deductibles range from $50 to $125, and some companies limit the total amount of coverage available, either annually or for the life of the pet. Annual caps typically range from $7,000 to $20,000.
Hemstreet said pet insurance won't save people with healthy dogs much money, but can make the difference if a dog has a serious illness or accident. "I think pet insurance is for the person who will do anything to treat their pet and save their pet," he said, noting that advanced treatments like chemotherapy and transplants are becoming more common. "They can do all this stuff, but it gets pretty expensive."
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