May 31, 2012

Insurance, prevention can help keep pets healthy

Some dogs will eat just about anything, and most aren’t all that picky when it comes to snagging a snack.

Some dogs will eat just about anything, and most aren’t all that picky when it comes to snagging a snack.

No question about it. If it smells foul enough, a dog will do one of two things: eat it or roll in it.

A plucky little pug from Maryland named Mickey became accustomed to snacking in his owners’ garden. The toxic mushrooms he found will probably be the most expensive snack he will ever eat. After almost $3,000 in medical treatments, Mickey walked away with no lasting side effects. And fortunately for Mickey’s owners, they had pet medical insurance that covered Mickey’s medical bills.

According to the American Pet Products Association, Americans spent $13.4 billion on veterinary care for their pets in 2011. Pet supplies and over-the-counter medications accounted for an additional $11.77 billion.

Providers of pet insurance have grown tenfold in the past decade, but only about 1 percent of Americans purchase it for pet emergencies, said Jules Benson of Philadelphia, vice president of Petplan Pet Insurance.

“We believe as an insurance company that you should be insured for those unanticipated risks,” he said.

Benson is originally from the United Kingdom, where this growing industry has gained momentum faster than in the United States.

“In the United Kingdom, 28 percent of pet owners insure their pets,” he said.

The APPA estimates the average pet owner spent $650 on vet bills in 2011. But it takes only one major illness or accident to spend double or triple that amount to keep an animal healthy.

Benson explained how quickly things can go wrong with an animal when it is least expected.

“In Kalamazoo, Mich., a dog that was walking through the woods with his owner left the trail for just a few minutes when she heard him moaning as if in pain. He stuck himself on a stick that penetrated the dog’s chest cavity and punctured a lung,” said Benson.

That is precisely the unanticipated medical emergency that can quickly eat up thousands of dollars, he said.

Benson suggested that owners who are considering insuring their pets compare plans. Average pet insurance premiums run about $400 a year. You can expect premiums to be higher for animals that traditionally are more prone to some diseases. While many companies won’t insure diseases that are common in some breeds, it should still be available if the animal has not been diagnosed with certain ailments such as cancer in retrievers, hip dysplasia in large breeds or disc problems in dachshunds.

Just as gardening season is getting under way, Benson offered these suggestions to help protect your pet from the poisons in the garden so it doesn’t end up like little Mickey the pug.

•  Vegetables that can be dangerous if ingested by pets include onions and chives, which can cause red blood cell destruction; rhubarb leaves, which contain kidney-damaging oxalic acid; and members of the nightshade family such as eggplant, tomatoes and potatoes, which contain deadly alkaloids.
•  When building your flower beds, avoid cocoa bean mulches. Their chocolaty smell is very enticing to pups, but just like chocolate, cocoa bean mulches contain theobromine, which is toxic for dogs.
•  Gardening organically is good for the planet and your pets. The herbicides and pesticides used in some popular gardening products can potentially make your dog sick. If you do choose to use these products in your garden, try to prevent your dog from digging in/eating/licking the treated areas.
•  If it’s impossible to keep your pets’ paws from prying, consider installing some type of fencing to keep your pet out of harm’s way.
•  To learn more ways to keep your pets safe, visit If you feel your pet has ingested something harmful, call the Helpline at 800-213-6680, where staff is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The emergency poison control center charges $39 per call, including unlimited follow-up consultations.

Doctors are also warning of heatstroke in pets now that the weather is getting warmer. They urge owners to keep pets in cool, shady areas on hot days, making sure they stay hydrated. If a pet owner notices heavy panting, red gums, excessive drooling or lethargy, they should transport the pet to the emergency clinic immediately while trying to cool the pet down with a fan and some cool, but not icy, water.

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