Originally created 02/11/99

Pet owners purchase health insurance for animals



SAVANNAH -- Cookie didn't have insurance.

But the 12-year-old chihuahua had diabetes, which helped her rack up $8,000 in veterinary bills before she died.

"The bill on Cookie could've been a whole lot more," said her owner, Everett Ogilvie. "She came to the vet almost every day her last six weeks, but I took her home at night."

Cookie's frail health convinced Mr. Ogilvie to look into pet insurance for his next dog, Kiki. He bought a policy about two years ago when he first got the black and white chihuahua/miniature pinscher mix, which was then a 3-year-old Save-A-Life dog. He paid about $200 for two years' coverage. Kiki is going gray around the muzzle now, but she's been healthy so far.

"It will be worth it eventually," Mr. Ogilvie said of the insurance policy. "A vet bill can run like your doctor bill."

Kiki's not quite the dog Cookie was.

"This one won't sleep with you," Mr. Ogilvie said.

But the 78-year-old twice-retired Thunderbolt resident -- he was a seaman for decades, then a campus police officer at Armstrong Atlantic State University -- clearly dotes on his bug-eyed companion. The 9-pound, 9-ounce canine wore a purple harness during her December visit to the vet for removal of a tick. Mr. Ogilvie asked the vet to trim her nails while she was there.

Mr. Ogilvie is one of only two clients at VCA Greater Savannah Animal Hospital who have opted for pet insurance. The hospital treats about 4,000 animals.

Veterinarian John Schoettle sees pet insurance as a good thing for the industry and for pets.

"Actually it encourages preventative medicine," he said. "They want docs to look for problems. They pay for annual blood work."

So far, the transactions are mainly between the pet owner and the insurance company, with the vet providing some documentation. Mr. Ogilvie, for example, gets reimbursed directly from the insurance company after he files his claim.

"We're totally out of the loop on all of it," Dr. Schoettle said. "For us, it's been a little more paperwork, but it's been fairly simple."

Dr. Schoettle likes pet insurance in theory but hasn't had enough experience with doggie indemnity to be able to recommend it.

"Most people are going to get it after they have a sick animal and they pay big bills," he said. "But their new pet may never have any problems. Whether or not it saves money I don't know."

Landings resident Hank Steers knows about big vet bills. He knows insurance would have saved him money when his now 18-month-old Australian terrier broke her back in several places in July. But he still hasn't filled out the form.

"I probably will," Mr. Steers said from his New Hampshire vacation spot. "It would have saved me money, and as active as this dog is we could run into problems again."

Visiting his daughter in New England last summer, Mr. Steers put a child-safety gate across a doorway to keep the very young Sidney out of harm's way. But the dog, whom Mr. Steers calls "part kangaroo," jumped the gate, tumbled down some stairs and broke her back in several places.

First, there was the trip to a vet emergency clinic in Portsmouth, N.H., and then on to Tufts University Veterinary School outside Boston for experimental surgery. The total bill was more than $3,000, Mr. Steers said, and insurance would have paid for most of it.

The irony is, Mr. Steers picked up an insurance form from his Savannah vet Chris Gall right before that vacation trip. Mr. Steers still has not filled it out. Procrastination is part of human nature, he said.

"But I intend to do it," Mr. Steers said.

Mr. Steers is the only patient of Dr. Gall's who has any pet insurance story to tell. And Dr. Gall doesn't understand why.

"More people should consider it, it's a good deal," said Dr. Gall, whose practice includes dogs, cats, pet and wild birds, and reptiles. "But people don't think about it until something bad happens."

Pet health care insurance is probably one of the most underutilized personal financial services available to the consumer, said Michael Dunlap, president and founder of PetsHealth, the No. 2 provider of the policies.

But that should change as PetsHealth and No. 1 provider Veterinary Pet Insurance increase their marketing efforts in 1999, Mr. Dunlap said.

Mr. Dunlap, a former executive with Citibank and teller machine maker Diebold, started PetsHealth in 1994 after he spent $5,000 on vet bills for his cat Monti.

Mr. Dunlap's take on the market is to sell pet insurance as a personal financial convenience through a variety of outlets -- he has teamed his coverage with pet food maker Iams Co., with the pet store chain Petsmart and with the American Automobile Association in Arizona.