Do you have pet insurance?
This week’s article comes by way of thinking aloud about some quirks of pet insurance.
And, for full disclosure, this was prompted by a recent case I treated where the dog’s severe stomach problems were caused by her human feeding a bad diet.
The dog became so sick she needed to be hospitalized and nursed, at the very high cost that was met by pet insurance, thankfully. Phew! At least the dog got the treatment she needed.
However, it transpired the dog’s problem was food intolerance, and she simply couldn’t digest the cheap, soy-based dog food the client was feeding. In the long term, the answer to her digestive upsets was simply to feed a better-quality dog food based on meat rather than plant protein.
The thing is, in the past, the client had been warned about this but ignored the advice. Quite simply, it was more economical to feed cheap food and have insurance pick up the vet bills every 3 months than to feed a good diet.
Dreadful, I know. But heck, that’s the crazy way some people think. The client only eventually took notice when the dog had severe bloody diarrhea and became so dehydrated she collapsed. His dog’s health eventually got so bad that he realized some things are more important than money.
But this also means that responsible parents — those of us who take out pet insurance — are subsidizing these irresponsible ones. Cases like this (and don’t get me wrong — they are fortunately few and far between) bump up the premiums for those who already have their pet’s health as the top priority.
Let’s consider another type of case … arguably a less clear-cut one.
Pyometra in Female Dogs
Let’s take a more common health concern covered by insurance: pyometra in female dogs.
For those who aren’t aware of this condition, it’s a buildup of pus within the womb. It’s most common in older female dogs but can occur rarely in younger ones.
The infection is caused by the lining of the womb being weakened with successive seasons. The high estrogen levels associated with estrus suppress the womb’s ability to fight off infection. Thus, over time, the female’s risk of developing pyometra increases to the point that it’s very common in elderly dogs.
Pyometra is serious and often requires prompt surgery to remove the infected organ. Typically, the signs develop a few weeks after the female has come out of heat:
In some cases, the cervix is open, which allows some of the pus to drain out of the womb. If this is the case, you may notice the dog spends a lot of time licking her rear end. If you are suspicious but not sure, try putting a white sheet over her bed. When she’s asleep, some of the purulent discharge will stain the sheet.
An open pyometra is serious and needs treatment, but these dogs often aren’t as toxic as those with “closed” pyometras. This is where the cervix is closed and so the infection brews up inside the dog. The womb becomes inflated with infection like air in a balloon, and the bacteria quickly cross into the bloodstream, making the dog septic and very sick very quickly.
Treatment of Pyometra
These dogs are sick and usually dehydrated. Depending on how poorly the dog is doing, she may stabilize first with antibiotics and intravenous fluids. Once she’s in a fit state, surgery under general anesthesia is required to remove the womb.
With the focus of infection removed, she stands a good chance of recovery. Without surgery, the womb may burst or the toxins may cause kidney failure, either one of which is fatal.
Prevention of Pyometra
Prevention is simple: Spay female dogs at a young age.
Pyometra, along with prevention of mammary cancer, is one of the reasons it’s advisable to spay female dogs while they are fit, strong and well. But here’s the rub: Surgery costs money, and that money isn’t recoverable from insurance. However, if a female gets a pyo and is insured, the insurance company covers the cost.
It’s an interesting moral argument: On the one hand, the condition is predictable and preventable, so should it be covered by insurance? Using the same argument, if your dog gets parvo and yet isn’t vaccinated, then insurance doesn’t cover you … so why should a pyo be different? On the other hand, if insurance didn’t pay for the operation, would this mean that female dogs wouldn’t get the lifesaving surgery they require?
See what I’m getting at? It’s a fine line to draw between taking responsibility and using pet insurance (and other people’s premiums) to make up for questionable healthcare decisions.
To stoke the fire a little more, here’s another conundrum: If you have a Shar-Pei that needs surgery to relieve the irritation of in-turned eyelids due to all those wrinkles, insurance won’t pay.
Insurance companies are businesses and know that breeds like the Shar-Pei will almost certainly need corrective surgery. This makes them not economical to sign up — unless the insurance company places an exclusion clause on these breed-related problems.
This means the dog is insured for accidents and ill health … just so long as it has nothing to do with the 1 thing (facial wrinkles) that will almost certainly cause a problem. Is this fair?
Learn more about Shar-Peis in this informative video:
A Thorny Debate
Teeth problems are another classic example of something that’s often not covered but needs to be. The insurance companies’ argument is that dental problems are so inevitable that it’s not possible to cover them.
My viewpoint is that, on balance, pet insurance is worthwhile (my own pets are insured, despite my profession). But I do wish some people would take more responsibility for their animals and not use insurance to make up for lack of care.
The firefighting approach of expecting a policy to pick up the bill for preventable problems is not great for anyone — least of all the pet. The 1 proviso is that at least being insured means the pet gets treatment, when this might otherwise not be the case.
However, excluding conditions doesn’t make people more inclined to brush their dogs’ teeth or not breed more Shar-Peis. They simply struggle to find the money when their dog inevitably gets a problem. So, with this in mind, not covering the cost of a pyo op wouldn’t necessarily make people more likely to get their dog spayed.
So perhaps the insurance companies have got this one right, as it means insured female dogs can get lifesaving surgery. Or maybe insurers just haven’t spotted the cause and effect of pyos and aren’t being philanthropic at all.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed May 25, 2018.
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