What's wrong, boy - can't pay the vet's bill?

Almost any treatment is possible for poorly pets, but you may need insurance to cover the cost

Sox is a 10-year-old spaniel who is suspected of having a rare form of cancer. The dog's owner, Julie Ainsworth, is preparing to pay the pounds 2,000 bill for keyhole surgery to investigate the matter. Whatever the result, Sox will go down in history as being the first dog to have a procedure of this type. Ms Ainsworth says: "This is her last chance. What is pounds 2,000 for 10 years' companionship?"

Keyhole surgery for dogs might be novel, but there is a whole range of hi-tech procedures which are now standard treatments for pets. For example, cats with heart problems can have a pacemaker fitted. Meanwhile, labradors are particularly prone to arthritis and a hip replacement might transform their quality of life, at a cost of around pounds 2,500.

Injuries caused by cars are one of the most common problems for dogs and cats. In the past the animal might have had to be destroyed or have a limb amputated. But now it is possible to repair complex fractures using advanced orthopaedic procedures, with the shattered limb being repaired with special stainless steel screws. Be prepared for a bill of around pounds 1,500 for this type of operation.Even spinal surgery for dogs with slipped discs is now possible - at a cost of around pounds 800.

With expensive medical treatments of this kind now available, it is little wonder that a number of companies have started offering insurance to cover the costs. With 6.5 million pet dogs and 7.4 million pet cats in the UK there is potentially a huge market for insurers, particularly as only 13 per cent of dogs and 5 per cent of cats are presently covered.

The policies are basically for vets' bills, although some also offer an option for cover in the event of loss, accidental death or theft.

Direct Line is the latest company to enter this market, quietly targeting pet owners among its existing 3 million policyholders.

Adrian Webb, a spokesman for Direct Line, says the company aims to offer a better deal by offering more bespoke premiums - so that people who previously suffered from being lumped in with poorer risks should be able to get lower premiums more easily.

It remains to be seen if the likes of Direct Line can succeed in a field which was pioneered by Patsy Bloom and David Simpson, the founders of Petplan with an investment of pounds 250 each in 1976. Last year they sold out to Cornhill Insurance for pounds 16.2m each.

However, Petplan's progress has not been entirely smooth: an attempt to export the concept to the United States was disastrous. Americans, it seems, are quite prepared to pay for vets' bills out of their own pockets on an uninsured basis.

So, is insuring against the event of pets needing treatment a sensible thing to do? Julie Briggs of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says: "We encourage people to take out this kind of cover. It is highly likely that there will be a time during the pet's life when the owner will be faced with a large vet's bill, and that is when insurance plays a part."

Elsewhere, the Kennel Club is contributing towards research into hereditary diseases among dogs using funds which it earns from an insurance plan sold by Pet Protect, a specialist insurer. Brian Leonard of the Kennel Club explains: "There are 300 hereditary diseases which can affect a dog. Currently we can tell whether an Irish Setter is a carrier of progressive retinal atrophy, a complaint which leads to blindness in older dogs. We are confident that eventually we will be able to improve the gene pool of this breed so that the disease is eradicated, and we are hopeful that this type of approach can be replicated and that other complaints can also be eliminated."

The good news - whether or not you like the idea of insurance - is that better treatment of pets is paying dividends. Dogs are living an average of 18 months longer than they did 30 years ago. Now 14 per cent of the dog population is over 10 years old, while a decade ago the proportion was only 10 per cent.

Furthermore, owners themselves seem to be taking better care of pets. Mr Leonard says that the incidence of dogs being rescued or found stray is falling. "It looks as if education is paying off and that increasingly the right people are getting the right kind of dog. There is no point in buying a dog which needs a lot of exercise if you don't have the opportunity to go out very often."

INSURING YOUR BEST FRIEND

Cost of covering a pet dog for vets' bills

Cover Annual premium

Petplan Economy 0800 282000 pounds 4,000 a year pounds 155 London (pounds 35 excess); pounds 128 Home Counties; pounds 101 rest of UK. pounds 24 supplement for large breeds

Kennel Club/Pet Protect 01372 739490 pounds 2,500 per condition pounds 125 (pounds 24 supplement for some large breeds)

Direct Line 0181 680 3333 pounds 2,500 per condition Varies widely - eg Yorkshire Terrier in London pounds 125 (pounds 50 excess)

PAWS Pet Insurance 0121 626 7891 pounds 2,000 per condition pounds 151 London; pounds 136 Home Counties; pounds 126 rest of UK (pounds 50 excess)

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