Keep the leash on pet fees

Before you buy a cat or dog, consider the costs and find the right cover, says Sam Dunn

A quarter of a century has passed since the slogan "a dog is for life, not just for Christmas" was dreamt up. Yet despite this well-known message - the work of the National Canine Defence League - the RSPCA received more than 760 calls about abandoned pets over the Christmas period last year.

The decision to buy a pet needs to be considered very carefully because the one thing they should not be is an impulse purchase, especially as a Christmas present for someone else.

On a personal level, new owners can kiss goodbye to those late-morning lie-ins and spur-of-the-moment weekends away, especially with a dog. You must be prepared to give up chunks of your free time to care for a pet properly.

Financially, too, sacrifices may have to be made: as well as buying the cat or dog in the first place, there are vaccination fees and a lifetime of veterinary bills and food costs to budget for.

Cost is a key consideration, advises RSPCA spokeswoman Lucy Harding, and if your pet happens to be accident-prone, suffer ill health or simply have a habit of getting into scrapes, the medical expenses could mount up. For example, surgery to heal a cat's injuries from a car accident can set you back around £500.

Pet insurance can be expensive, but in the long run it could well work out far cheaper than paying for treatment on an ad hoc basis. "More people are taking out cover for their pets because of sophisticated treatment and rising vets' bills," says Joanna St.George, pet adviser at insurer More Th>n.

If you are considering taking out a policy, it can be difficult to compare the different levels of insurance. That's why you must think about what cover you want before looking at what's available.

A simple policy will cover vets' bills in the event of minor surgical operations or drug treatments, while a comprehensive policy will go as far as paying for a pet psychologist or stumping up £2,500 towards the cost of cancelling your holiday if your cat or dog needs last-minute life-saving treatment.

Cats are cheaper to insure than dogs as their veterinary treatment is less expensive. But you still need to scour the market as the cost of cover varies dramatically between providers.

Petwise charges £66 a year for cover up to a maximum of £1,000 for each medical expense claim, including alternative treatments such as physiotherapy.

The RSPCA charges double this: the cover includes up to £4,000 per medical expenses claim and provides a raft of other benefits, including up to £1,500 if your pet dies in an accident. You can also claim up to £500 towards the cost of trying to recover a stolen cat: this money can be used to cover advertising or a reward for the cat's safe return.

Dog owners typically fork out at least £100 a year for a standard policy. Rather than pay out a maximum amount per claim, Saga's £150 basic annual insurance will cover you for up to £2,000 a year in vets' bills.

Saga's policy will also pay out on up to £400 in kennel fees if you fall ill and are hospitalised and so can't care for your dog.

For more extensive medical and life cover, and higher payments for kennel fees, expect to pay bigger premiums. Direct Line offers the Pet Care Advanced plan which, for an annual £224 fee for a pedigree dog, pays up to £6,000 per claim and covers the cost of five different types of alternative treatment (acupuncture, for example). You also get up to £1,500 if your dog goes missing or is stolen.

Most policies will insure against the costs incurred if your dog injures someone else or damages their property - usually up to £1m worth of cover.

If your dog is pedigree, you'll also have to pay more to insure it than a crossbreed: Axa charges 25 per cent extra.

While you are checking what is covered, it is worth paying attention to what isn't. Most policies insist that if your pet is ill, two weeks must pass before you can claim on your policy. But if the pet has an accident, it is covered from day one. Most policies charge an excess, which tends to be around £100. And vaccinations and neutering are not covered by pet insurance.

If you have pets with existing conditions or who are elderly, it is much harder to find cover. Insurers won't cover existing illnesses and some have an upper age limit. But it is possible to get cover for older animals as long as you are prepared to pay a percentage of any bills.

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