CHICAGO — When Jeremy Reis got Bodhi last summer, he immediately took out a pet insurance policy on the yellow Labrador puppy. That wound up being a wise decision.
Within the first year, Bodhi was rushed to a veterinary emergency room after he swallowed a teacup, and he later chewed the cord on an electric blanket, got a sizable shock and rang up a $1,000 doctor bill.
Reis' insurance policy covered 80 percent of the costs, more than making up for the roughly $50 per month the 34-year-old Chicagoan pays for the plan.
"It's nice when something does happen to be able to have some coverage like this," Reis said. "Anybody that gets a new dog, I always tell them about it."
Once unheard of, pet insurance is slowly catching on in the United States. Many veterinarians now routinely suggest that their clients at least research companies that offer such coverage.
"I try to recommend it to all my clients with their new puppy exams," said Cindy Hooper, veterinarian at Gold Coast Animal Hospital. "I don't endorse any one particular brand, I just suggest they look into it."
Typically, pet owners pay a monthly premium. As their pet needs veterinary services, they pay the bills upfront then submit them for reimbursement. Some plans cover what in human terms are considered "well visits," including vaccinations and checkups. But many cover only costs associated with a pet's illness.
While some who have purchased pet insurance have run into the same hassles that come with human health insurance — coverage denials based on pre-existing conditions, disputes over reimbursements — the two types of insurance are notably different.
"Pet insurance is, by law, property casualty insurance," said Laura Bennett, who runs Embrace Pet Insurance and also writes a blog that advocates for the industry as a whole. "Pets are treated a bit like your fur coat," she said. "Though we may not want to believe it, they're not people."
Bennett said only about half a percent of American dogs and cats are insured, while in England the figure is more than 25 percent.
"It just hasn't quite caught on here yet," said Bennett, whose company is based in Ohio. "There's a lot of confusion and misinformation about pet insurance."
First off, she said, pet insurance shouldn't be viewed as a way to save money: "It's about preventing an enormous cost in your life. Do you aim to save money when you buy insurance for your car? No," she said.
Bennett said one reason she and many pet lovers, as well as a growing number of veterinarians, like the policies is that they can make it easier for a pet owner to pursue potentially life-saving treatment for their animal.
Hooper, the veterinarian, agreed.
"My feeling is that if people have insurance and know that they're going to get 70 or 80 percent of what they're putting out back, they might be more inclined to pursue treatment and extend the dog's life significantly," she said.
Even with pet insurance, hassle-free coverage is no guarantee. Nicole Abbott found this out the hard way.
When the Chicago attorney learned that her company offered pet insurance as part of its benefits package, she immediately signed up her beloved pugs Bella and Chooch.
At the end of last year, Chooch developed an unusual type of stones in his bladder, requiring $500 worth of testing and a $1,200 surgery.
When Abbott sought reimbursement, the insurance company denied her claim, saying Chooch — who previously had problems with routine bladder stones — had a pre-existing condition. A note from her veterinarian saying the two bladder problems were wholly unrelated did no good.
"I tried everything, and they wound up saying I'd have to appeal to the state agency that oversees insurance," Abbott said. "I'd spend hours at that point, so I just said, 'Forget it. It's not worth it.' "
Shortly after Abbott got Bella, the dog had a seizure and required hundreds of dollars worth of treatment. The pet insurance company claimed Bella's seizure came one day shy of her policy going into effect, so the treatment wasn't covered. Abbott disputed that claim, but again hit a brick wall.
Bennett has heard stories like Abbott's many times, and she agrees that the plans are not all created equal.
"Just like anything, sometimes you get what you pay for, sometimes you're not getting what you think you're getting," Bennett said. "You need to research the plans and know the details."