Not all pet insurance deals are what they seem

With 13,000 claims a year rejected, too many owners are barking up the wrong tree by taking out inadequate policies. Nicola Cappin and Melanie Bien report

You can't wrap your pets in cotton wool but you might think that if you take out insurance, you won't have to worry about the cost of treatment if they fall ill.

Well, not necessarily. Research from Sainsbury's Bank shows that 13,000 claims are turned down every year. And if you have to pay the vet's bill yourself, you may find it a struggle: treating a cat for a broken leg costs around £300, while a dog's cruciate ligament rupture can cost up to £1,200, according to the RSPCA.

"In some cases, insurers won't pay out after the first 12 months of the pet's illness," warns Brian Brown, associate director at Defaqto, a financial research group, and author of a new report on pet cover. To make matters worse, some insurers charge a percentage of the bill as an excess if this comes to more than the standard excess.

The only way to avoid this is to read the small print when looking for cover. "Pet insurance is probably the most complicated personal insurance product there is," Mr Brown adds. "It is also one of the most emotive. For peace of mind, buy a policy that gives good cover for the worst-case scenario, such as long-term chronic conditions."

Pets are big business in the UK: 4.8 million households have a dog and 4.5 million a cat. But most pet owners don't bother forking out for insurance at all. Seven out of 10 cats and dogs aren't covered, says Sainsbury's Bank.

It isn't just a large bill from the vet that these owners are risking. "Insurance can dramatically reduce the cost of owning a pet," says Robert O'May, insurance product manager at Sainsbury's Bank, "but more importantly, it can ensure the pet receives the medical treatment it needs if it's injured or falls ill."

Sarah Styler from Bretforton in Worcestershire was certainly glad she had cover when her dog, Clemmie, was injured by a horse last year. "We live in a converted barn and have lots of animals," she says. "Clemmie loves to round up all the animals but one day one of the horses kicked her in the mouth. She lost five of her teeth and needed £1,000 worth of treatment."

Ms Styler pays £40 a year for her NFU Mutual policy. "It has turned out to be really good value," she says. "Clemmie had a rough year, and we ended up putting in another £300 claim when she developed a blood disorder and had to spend two weeks in hospital. Mind you, Clemmie is eight years old now and it's the first time we have had to make a claim."

Basic insurance costs as little as £6 a month (see the table above) for a standard policy for a dog. Depending on the animal's age and breed, this pays vets' fees up to £1,500 and a lump sum if your pet dies, as well as covering you for holiday cancellations, boarding fees, theft or straying from home, advertising and rewards, third party liability and accidental damage. Premiums rise to £28.65 a month for Petplan's top-of-the-range policy, which puts no limit on vets' fees.

When choosing a policy, check how much you can claim for any one illness or injury, and whether there is a time limit on treatment. Good cover should also provide third party liability in case your dog gets in a fight with a neighbour's dog. Some policies offer homoeopathy or acupuncture treatments, while insurer Direct Line even offers a 24-hour bereavement line for customers.

According to Defaqto, the best-value policies are from Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury's Bank, Pet Protect, Scottish Pet Insurance, Paws Pet Insurance and NFU Mutual. It also rates Petplan for dogs and Intervet for cats among its best buys.

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