By: Dr. Chip Coombs, DVM
      Chief Veterinary Officer, Pets Plus Us, Oakville, ON, Canada

      July 1, 2018


One of the many advantages of living in Canada is that we have universal health care. It certainly isn’t a perfect system, but for the most part it removes the financial worry and stress, should we become ill. We walk into a doctor’s office or a hospital, receive acute care treatment and leave; no invoices, no remortgaging the house and essentially, for the most part, no financial worries. Because of this, we really have little idea how much medical care costs and we carry on our daily lives without a second thought – until we acquire a pet for the family.

For most families, a pet is not simply just a pet. They are true members of the family joined by a bond that is oft times stronger than the human-human bond. Although for our purposes here we are referring to dogs and cats, the human-animal bond can be just as strong to a horse, parrot or iguana. So, for our four-footed family members, most if not all of us want the very best health care, because they are so important to us. However, because we have little experience in the cost of health care, it can be quite surprising to visit a veterinarian with a pet who is unwell and find out what the costs are. Depending upon the situation, the costs can have a profound impact on what care, if any, a family can afford to offer their beloved pet. This is why it behooves all pet owners to at least consider the value that pet health insurance (PHI) can offer.

PHI is not a new idea, it has been around since the turn of the last century in Sweden and first came to Canada in the late 1980’s. There are five major providers of PHI in Canada and although there are significant differences between them, they all are designed to provide health care coverage for accidents or illnesses that were unforeseen or unexpected. This is private insurance, not universal health care, and will provide coverage in all situations that were not pre-existing. For example, if you had a cat who had diabetes and no other relevant medical history, a PHI policy would not provide coverage for the diabetes or directly related problems, but it would provide coverage for the umpteen other potential problems that could happen to any cat, especially if they go outdoors.

An obvious question to ask oneself is why would you want PHI? As each year passes, the sophistication of medical knowledge and surgical techniques continues to grow exponentially, both in human medicine and veterinary medicine. There is very little medical care that is offered to people that cannot also be offered to companion animals. The major difference is that the care provided to our pets is often provided much more quickly than to ourselves, yet the cost is out of pocket. Providing veterinary medical care involves a triangle between the pet, the owner and the veterinarian. What PHI offers is the potential for a win-win-win scenario for all.

For the Pet:

  • Whether it is a dog or cat, they receive the very best veterinary health care in a timely manner. This enhances the chances of a full recovery with enhanced quality of life going forward.
  • Because the attending veterinarian has few restrictions on performing appropriate diagnostic tests, there is less chance of a misdiagnosis, as some diseases will mimic one another.
  • A pet has a greater opportunity to live a longer, happier life due to timely delivery of appropriate medical care.

For the Owner:

  • PHI allows an owner to no longer rely on discretionary funds to pay for an unexpected illness or accident. Rather it can now be budgeted for with the financial exposure being limited to the coinsurance and deductible pre-chosen by the owner.
  • Allows an owner to make the best medical decisions that are in the best interests of their pet (and often their family).
  • Removes the heart wrenching decision of having to put a pet down simply because the appropriate care is unaffordable, so called “economic euthanasia”.
  • Provides very significant peace of mind, knowing that no matter what the circumstances, your pet will receive the care they need.

For the Veterinarian:

  • The advances in veterinary medicine have been very significant and will continue this trend. PHI allows veterinarians to practise the highest quality of veterinary medicine and to provide the very best medical care. However, these advances come with costs and there is nothing more disheartening to a veterinarian than knowing that they can help a pet, but face the harsh reality that a family can simply not afford the necessary care.

With this win-win-win situation, why is it that PHI is not more commonly utilized by pet owners?

  1. Surprisingly enough, many pet owners simply are unaware of its existence. However, that is now changing with veterinarians, breeders and shelters offering trial policies for every cat and dog they see.
  2. PHI has been in Canada for almost 30 years and the policies that are available today are very different than at the start. An owner may have been disappointed with a previous policy’s coverage and doesn’t appreciate that one can now purchase a policy that is fully transparent, so an owner knows exactly what is covered and what is not, allowing them to make an informed decision.
  3. As we have discussed before, pet owners, especially new pet owners, are completely in the dark about the high level of care available in veterinary medicine and the costs associated with this care.
  4. When a new puppy or kitten comes home for the first time, there is a tendency to associate their future health with a new TV set. In other words, this cute, cuddly critter is brand new, there can’t possibly be anything wrong with it and will have years of enjoyment before we have to start worrying about anything going wrong. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth, whether the problem arises from an accident or an illness.

Even as a veterinarian, I have all our family critters covered by PHI and as most of the crises happen when I am away and at night, we have been very happy that we had them covered. A recent example occurred a short while ago when one of our dogs slipped after an ice storm while walking. The consequence was a torn ligament in her knee with a corrective surgical procedure which usually has a fee of $3500-$5500 attached to it; the fee varying with where one lives in the Canada. In a future article, we will discuss some of the myths attached to PHI as well as key questions to ask of your PHI provider before you purchase a policy.