Pet insurance: your complete guide

Fact checked
Fact Checked.
Updated on
October 29, 2021

In a nutshell

Pet insurance is a special kind of insurance that protects your pets. You pay money every month or year and in return, your insurance provider will cover the vet bills if your pet has an accident or develops a medical condition.

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Ever thought it’s a pity there’s no NHS for our furry friends? Whether you have a dog, cat, horse or guinea pig, we understand that pets are much-loved family members and it can be devastating when they get poorly.

Pet insurance means you can be confident your pet will get the medical attention it needs if they have an accident or get ill. Here, we’ll tell you everything there is to know about pet insurance, from what it is to how it works. 

What is pet insurance and how does it work?

Pet insurance is a special kind of insurance that protects your pet if it becomes unwell.

Basically, it’s a kind of contract offered by these people called ‘insurance providers.’ You give them money each month or year (known as your insurance premium). In return, they cover your bills if your pet has an accident or develops a medical condition. 

It’s a bit like a mobile phone contract or an energy contract. But instead of getting 5G or electricity, you get protection for your furry family member (so, it’s much more important obviously!).

How does pet insurance work?

To understand how pet insurance works, you’ll need to understand a few key terms...

  • Premium: We’ve talked about this one already! Your premium is the money you pay your insurance provider each month or year in return for protection.
  • Policy: Your insurance policy is that contract we talked about. It will lay out everything that’s included in your pet insurance and how much you have to pay.
  • Claim: If your pet gets poorly or has an accident that’s covered by your insurance policy, you can make a claim. This is what it’s called when you ask your insurance provider to cough up the money!
  • Excess: When you make a claim, you’ll have to cover part of the cost yourself, known as your excess. This will be a set amount of money that’s laid out in your insurance policy as standard practice.

So, in a nutshell: If you want to get pet insurance, you’ll need to pay a monthly or yearly fee. In return, if something happens to your pet, you can ask your insurance provider to cover the costs, known as making a claim. Just bear in mind that, in order to make a claim, you have to pay a set contribution known as your excess.

There, it’s pretty simple really!

What does pet insurance cover?

Here’s the important bit: you can only ask your insurance provider to cover the cost of things that are listed in your insurance policy. It’s really important to read it carefully as every insurance policy will be slightly different and they’ll all cover different things.

That said, pet insurance is generally there to cover big unexpected costs rather than routine or preventative treatment. Most pet insurance policies will cover…

  • Injuries from accidents. Normally, pet insurance will pay your vet bills if your pet is injured in an accident. This will include things like broken bones.
  • Illnesses. If your pet develops an illness, most will be covered by your pet insurance. Cancer, arthritis, asthma and bone diseases are just a few.
  • Missing pet. Most insurance providers will cover the cost of advertising if your pet goes missing, and will contribute towards a reward too.
  • Death. This one’s definitely on the morbid side (sorry!). But if the worst happens and your pet dies due to an accident or illness, insurance providers will usually give you the money back that you bought or could sell your pet for. This won’t normally apply to older pets though! Your policy may also cover the cost of euthanasia if your pet needs to be put to sleep, as well as cremation or burial.
  • Third-party liability (dogs only). If you have a dog, your pet insurance policy will usually cover the cost of any damage your dog causes to someone else or their property, as well as any legal fees. This won’t apply to cats as they’re regarded as ‘free spirits.’ In other words, if a cat causes any damage, it’s not your responsibility.
  • Treatment abroad. Usually, your policy will cover any accidents, injuries or illnesses that happen when your pet is abroad.
  • Kennel or cattery. If you’re ill in hospital for more than a certain number of days (normally at least 2 to 4 days in a row) and you don’t have anyone to look after your pet, your insurance provider will normally cover the cost of a kennel or cattery for you.

We’re keeping our fingers crossed that none of these things happen and you don’t ever need to claim on your pet insurance. But it’s always better to be safe than sorry! Check any insurance policies you’re considering carefully as they’re all different and it’s super important to make sure you’re covered for everything you need. 

What does pet insurance not cover?

As fantastic as pet insurance can be, it won’t cover everything. Here are the things you’ll normally have to fork out for yourself.

  • Routine and preventative treatment. Any routine appointments – or treatment that’s designed to prevent an illness rather than cure one – won’t normally be covered. This means you’ll have to pay for things like routine vaccinations, check-ups, worming and flea treatments, neutering and grooming yourself. Yeah, sorry!
  • Pre-existing health conditions. Does your pet have an existing health condition? Or have they been ill or injured in the past? In this case, those health conditions won’t normally be covered by your insurance provider (unless you were already with that insurance provider when the problem started!).
  • Hereditary conditions. Some pedigree breeds are more likely to develop certain health conditions, especially when it comes to dogs. For example, some dog breeds commonly suffer from breathing conditions or weak hips. These are known as hereditary conditions and won’t be covered by some insurance providers.
  • ‘Aggressive’ dog breeds. Some dog breeds are seen as ‘aggressive,’ like pit bulls or Brazilian mastiffs. If you have one of these breeds or your dog is crossed with one of them, you might find it hard to find an insurance provider.
  • Dogs that work. If you want to use your pet for commercial purposes like racing, farming or hunting, they probably won’t be covered on a standard pet insurance policy. You’ll normally need to get a specialised policy instead.
  • Pregnancy and giving birth. Is your pet pregnant? Your insurance won’t normally cover any medical treatment related to being pregnant or giving birth. It also won’t cover any treatment that’s needed by your pet’s offspring, so you’ll have to save up to treat those adorable puppies or kittens yourself (or get them their own insurance policy!).
  • The first 14 days. Most pet insurance providers won’t cover the costs of anything that happens in the first 14 days of your insurance policy. Why? Well, this is your ‘cooling-off period,’ which means you can cancel and get a full refund during this time without having to pay a penny.

What is a pre-existing condition for pet insurance?

Okay, so you know how we said that insurance providers won’t usually cover pre-existing health conditions? Well, you probably want to know what actually counts as a pre-existing condition when it comes to pet insurance, right?

A pre-existing health condition can be one of 2 things.

  1. Chronic conditions. A chronic condition is an ongoing health problem that your pet has when you take out your policy. It could be anything from a heart condition to a hip problem or arthritis.
  1. Historic conditions. These are health conditions or injuries that your pet has had in the past but no longer suffers from. For example, it could be a broken leg or an illness.

Most insurance providers won’t cover anything that falls under either of these categories when you take out your insurance policy. 

Let’s say your pet suffers from a heart condition. When you get pet insurance, you’ll be able to claim for any new illnesses they develop but not for any treatment related to their heart condition.

Now let’s say your pet broke its leg last year. If you’ve only just got pet insurance and your pet develops any problems later down the line because their leg was once broken, you won’t be able to claim for these problems (although you will be able to claim for things that are unrelated to the break). You get the idea!

That said, there is a bit of wiggle room. Some insurance providers are nicer than others and will be happy to cover pre-existing conditions as long as your pet hasn’t been treated for them recently (for example, in the last 2 years). There are even a few providers that can cover ongoing conditions but beware: you’ll normally end up paying through the roof for it!

We know what you’re thinking: how do pet insurance providers know about pre-existing conditions? You might even be wondering if you can hide them.

Well, you’ll have to list your pet’s pre-existing conditions when you first get your insurance. If you’re caught lying and they find out, you won’t get any money from them. Plus, it’s pretty easy for them to find out you’ve lied by looking at your pet’s veterinary records. Some will actually ask for your pet’s records upfront.

To cut a long story short, being anything other than honest just isn’t worth it.

Do I need pet insurance?

You don’t technically need pet insurance as it’s not a legal requirement. BUT think about how you’d cope if you were hit with a massive vet bill without it. The chances are that pet insurance would be a welcome help in those moments!

If you’re umming and ahhing about whether pet insurance is right for you, ask yourself the following questions.

What animal is your pet?

Some animals are easier to insure than others. Do you have a cat or a dog? Great! It’ll be really easy to find insurance for them as these are the most common animals to insure. 

You’ll also be able to find insurance pretty easily if you have a horse or a smaller mammal like a guinea pig or a rabbit.

On the other hand, if you have an exotic pet, like a snake or a parrot, things might be a bit trickier. Don’t get us wrong, we’d still recommend looking. But there’ll be less choice out there as fewer insurance providers will offer this kind of cover.

It’s also worth thinking about your pet’s lifespan. A dog or a cat can live a long time and vet bills can quickly add up. So, a pet insurance policy is likely to come in handy.

However, smaller mammals like hamsters have much shorter lifespans, often only 2 or 3 years. That means you’ll get less chance to make a claim and it might not feel as worthwhile. Only you can make that call though!

How old is your pet?

We know, we know, it’s rude to ask someone’s age! But as your pet gets older, they’re more likely to get ill and need expensive vet care. So, insurance providers will normally put their prices up when your pet reaches a certain age. Urgh!

Dogs and cats are likely to get treated as ‘older pets’ by insurance providers when they reach around the age of 8. Meanwhile, rabbits will probably be considered ‘older’ when they reach 5 and horses will often have until they’re around 20.

If your pet is classed as an ‘older pet,’ they’ll cost more to insure, so you might think twice about forking out on insurance. However, remember that they’re more likely to need medical attention. So, not investing in pet insurance could mean hefty vet bills.

How risky are they?

Some breeds are more likely to develop certain conditions than others, especially with dogs and cats. 

Think about pugs. That cute flat face can sadly lead to breathing problems. The same is true of Persian cats. Bigger dog breeds, on the other hand, are more likely to develop joint problems.

If your breed is especially prone to health conditions, that might make pet insurance even more worthwhile.

Similarly, dog thefts have recently gone through the roof. Money.co.uk has revealed that Staffordshire Bull Terriers are the most likely breed to get stolen, followed by Chihuahuas and Jack Russells Terriers. If your dog is a particularly sought-after breed, pet insurance could give you peace of mind that if your dog was stolen, you’d get the financial support you’d need to find them again.

Do you have the funds to cover a big vet bill?

When you’re umming and ahhing about whether to get pet insurance, the most important thing to consider is whether you’d be able to afford a hefty vet bill. 

If you’ve got a tight budget, pet insurance might seem like an unnecessary expense. But without it, you could end up with a big vet bill that you can’t afford to pay. To give you some idea, if your pet needs both hips replaced because of something called hip dysplasia, it could cost a whopping £7,000.

Worse still, if you have a dog and you don’t have pet insurance, you probably won’t have any third-party liability cover. Imagine your dog runs out into the road and causes a car crash. If it’s found to be your dog’s fault, you could be left responsible for paying not just your dog’s vet bills but also for legal fees and damage to the drivers, passengers and their cars. 

Pet insurance would cover all those costs for you. But without it, you could be left in a sticky situation (luckily, you won’t have to worry about this if you have a cat though as they’re considered ‘free spirits’).

The alternative to getting pet insurance is normally something called ‘self-insuring.’ Self-insuring is when you put the money you would spend on pet insurance each month or year into a savings pot that you can dip into if your pet needs treatment. 

The main problem with this is that you could be hit with a large vet bill before you’ve had the chance to build up your savings. Plus, we don’t know about you, but lots of people find it tricky to save up religiously without dipping into their pot every now and again when they probably shouldn’t!

What pet insurance should I get?

If you’ve been on the hunt for pet insurance before, you might have found it a bit daunting trying to work out which pet insurance is best. After all, there are a few different types and they all cover different things and come at different costs.

Here are the 4 types you’ll need to choose between:

  1. Lifetime pet insurance. Lifetime pet insurance is normally the most expensive. It means that, if your pet develops an illness or gets injured, your insurance provider will continue to cover the costs of that condition for the rest of your pet’s life. There’ll normally still be a limit as to how much money they’ll be willing to pay out each year for it though!
  1. Time-limited pet insurance. A time-limited pet insurance policy is one that only covers each illness or injury that your pet develops for a set period of time – usually 12 months. This means if your pet develops a new ongoing condition, you’ll need to pay for it yourself after the 12-month period is up.
  1. Maximum benefit cover. Maximum benefit cover is also known as per condition insurance. It’s where your insurance provider gives you a set limit to how much you can claim for each illness or injury. This limit doesn’t reset each year. Instead, you can keep claiming for the same condition throughout your pet’s life until you reach the maximum amount, as long as you keep renewing your policy.
  1. Accident only pet insurance. Accident only is where your insurance provider only covers the vet bills if your pet is injured in an accident. It’s the cheapest type of insurance, but it won’t be any help if your pet develops an illness or disease.

So, what is the best pet insurance? Well, lifetime pet insurance offers the most complete cover. Yes, it’s the most expensive, but if your pet needs a lot of medical attention it could end up saving you a ton of money.

However, the best pet insurance for you and your furry friend will depend on lots of different things, like your budget, the type of pet you have, whether they have any pre-existing conditions and more. Only you can decide!

How much is pet insurance?

The average cost of pet insurance in the UK is £271 per year (according to ABI). 

But exactly how much you end up paying for pet insurance will vary based on a number of things – like what animal your pet is, their age, their breed and what kind of cover you choose. Even where you live can play a part, as vet fees will be higher in some parts of the country!

Let’s look at some costs for pets under the age of 5. According to MoneySuperMarket, you can expect to pay around £225 per year for a dog and £116 per year for a cat. 

Now let’s look at costs for pets over the age of 5. Not surprisingly, costs jump up. You’re now looking at an average cost of £381 per year for a dog and £174 per year for a cat!

Animal / Age Under the age of 1 Under the age of 5 Over the age of 5
Dog £264 per year £225 per year £381 per year
Cat £137 per year £116 per year £174 per year

Just bear in mind that we’re talking about premiums here (remember, your upfront cost). This doesn’t include your excess which is the money you have to pay when you actually make a claim.

How much does pet insurance increase each year?

Over the last 10 years, the average cost of pet insurance has increased by around 10% (according to Bought By Many). But why do insurance providers keep putting their prices up?

Well, it’s partly because as time goes on, we keep finding better and pricier treatments for our pets. While it’s a good thing for our furry family members, it does mean that claims are getting more expensive (in other words, insurance companies are having to fork out more when we make claims). In fact, over the last 10 years, the average cost of claims has increased by around 75%!

Of course, your own insurance policy can also go up from time to time for other reasons. Some insurance providers will put your prices up if you make a claim (so if you’re only faced with a small vet bill, it might actually be more cost-effective to pay it yourself instead of claiming through your insurance). And your prices will also go up as your pet gets older. C’est la vie!

How to get the best deal on pet insurance

Ready and raring to get your pet insured? Then you’re probably wondering what to look for in pet insurance and how to go about making sure you choose the right one. 

The best way to find the right cover for the right price is to use a comparison site – we've listed our favourites below. They’ll let you compare insurance providers by things like type of insurance, price, type of pet and even whether you want pre-existing medical conditions to be included. If you have time, we’d recommend using a few comparison sites as they won’t all show the same deals.

Meerkat Meals

Compare the Market

Compares the most providers – 33! However doesn't search for multi-pet cover.

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Quick quote

MoneySuperMarket

Searches 25 of the biggest providers and takes less than 5mins. Includes multi-pet cover up to 7 pets.

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GoCompare

Searches 20 providers and includes multi-pet cover up to 6 pets.

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Quick quote

Confused.com

Get a quote for pet insurance in around 3 minutes. Includes multi-pet cover up to 7 pets.

Try now

Anyway, once you’re decided on one or a few of the sites above and you’re scrolling through pet insurance quotes, here’s what you’ll need to consider in order to find the right insurance provider for you:

1. Premium

Everyone loves a good deal so it’s natural that you’ll want to find the insurance provider who’s offering you the cheapest monthly or yearly price. However, be careful that this isn’t all you look at.

If you see a deal that looks too good to be true, dig a little deeper and see if you can tell why. Is it because it only covers injuries from accidents, rather than including any illnesses your pet develops? Is it because the excess is really high, meaning you’ll have to pay through the roof if you make a claim?

Of course you want the best price, but it’s super important to make sure you’re happy with the protection you’re getting!

2. Excess 

Your excess is the money you have to contribute when you make a claim. Policies with high excesses are usually cheaper per month or year than policies with low ones. So, it can be tempting to opt for a policy where the excess is really high.

However, it’s important that you choose a policy with an excess that you can actually afford. And it’s worth paying a little bit more per month or year to make sure of this. Otherwise, if your pet gets poorly, you might not be able to afford to make a claim.

3. Level of cover

Make sure you think carefully about what type of pet insurance you want. Do you want lifetime pet insurance, which would cover any illnesses your pet develops for its entire lifetime (as long as you keep renewing your policy)? Or are you happy with accident-only pet insurance, which would only cover your pet if it has an accident?

The more an insurance policy covers, the more expensive it will often be. So, if you’re on a tight budget, you might think about getting an insurance policy that covers less. However, an insurance type that offers more protection, like lifetime pet insurance, could save you a lot of money if your pet develops an ongoing condition.

Ultimately, it’s all about finding the right balance for you!

4. Extras

Some insurance providers will offer you extras, like ‘lost and found cover’ (which covers the cost of advertising and for a reward if your pet goes missing) and ‘overseas travel cover’ (which covers vet fees when your pet is abroad). But be careful! Most insurance providers will include these things as standard.

We’re not saying you shouldn’t go with an insurance provider who charges you extra for those additional bits of cover. But we are saying you should look closely at what exactly is included as standard when you’re comparing quotes. Otherwise, you might think you’ve found a great deal but then quickly find your costs climbing once you add all those extras on!

On top of this, a lot of insurance providers will try and ‘upsell’ to you. That’s when they try and encourage you to buy extras that you might not actually need – and they’re very good at it! Make sure that you think carefully before paying for any extras and don’t impulse buy. After all, there’s no point in splashing out on something that you’re never going to use!

5. Exclusions

It’s really important that you double, triple check what a policy does and doesn’t include before you sign up for anything. Every insurance provider will have exclusions. For example, they might refuse to cover treatment carried out at specific vets. Or they might not cover pets over a certain age.

You’ll need to make sure you’re totally happy with what’s included. Only that way will you have the peace of mind that your pet is going to get the help it needs when it needs it.

6. No claims bonus

Some pet insurance providers will offer a no claims bonus. Basically, when you don’t make a claim for a certain period of time (often a year), your insurance provider might give you a discount to reward you for not claiming.

That might all sound good but it’s not all roses and sunshine. It means if you do make a claim, your costs will usually go up. This is the case with most kinds of insurance, but as far as we’re concerned, it’s pretty irresponsible with pet insurance. 

Why? Well, imagine your insurance provider doing their best to discourage you from getting your pet the medical treatment it needs. That just doesn’t sit right with us.

When to get pet insurance

When it comes to pet insurance, getting it as early as possible is the way to go. 

Remember that most insurance providers won’t cover pre-existing health conditions (unless you pay a great deal extra!). By getting pet insurance when your pet is young and hasn’t yet had a chance to develop a medical condition, your pet will be as covered as it can be. In fact, if you have lifetime insurance, any illnesses it develops will be covered by your insurance provider for the rest of your pet’s life!

Just bear in mind that, for this to work, you’ll need to stay with your insurance provider instead of swapping over to a new one. That’s right: most of the time when it comes to insurance, we recommend switching providers yearly so that you always end up with the best deal. But this isn’t the case with pet insurance.

If your pet develops a health condition and they’re on a lifetime or maximum benefit insurance policy, you’re best off staying with your current insurance provider. This is because a new provider will see it as a pre-existing condition and will probably refuse to cover it.

Nuts About Money tip: If you’re planning on staying with the same provider so that your pet’s ongoing health issues are covered, make sure the cover is continuous. If you take a break and then sign up again, they’ll see you as a new customer and probably won’t cover those pre-existing health conditions anymore.

How to claim on pet insurance

Has your pet developed an illness that needs treatment? Or been injured in an accident? If the treatment is included in your insurance policy, now’s the time to make a claim!

You can make a claim before your pet starts treatment or after. While some insurance providers will be happy to pay your vet bill directly, others will want you to pay yourself and then will simply reimburse you. This can be handy, especially if your pet needs urgent treatment and you don’t want to wait for an answer from your insurance provider.

Luckily, whichever way you do it, it’s a really easy process. Here’s how make a claim:

  1. Tell your insurance provider you want to make a claim. Most insurance providers have a claims line you can call to tell them you want to make a claim. You can find the number on your policy or your insurance provider’s website. Other insurance providers will let you log into your account online to start the process off instead. 
  1. Fill out a form. Next, you’ll have a form to fill in. Some insurance providers will send it to you but most nowadays will let you fill it out on their website. You’ll need to provide details like your policy number, what treatment your pet needs and what the costs are. There might also be a section for your vet to fill out (be aware that your vet might charge you for this!).
  1. Wait for the payout. Now, your insurance provider will look carefully at your claim and decide whether they believe what you’re asking for is covered by your policy. If they agree that the treatment you’re asking for is covered, you just have to wait for the payout. This normally takes around 10 to 20 days.

What happens if your claim is rejected?

Sadly 4 out of 10 pet insurance claims are rejected (according to money.co.uk). You might be wondering how that could happen if you’ve been paying for insurance. And it’s a good question!

Remember that every policy is different and they all have different exclusions. It’s easy to assume you’re covered for something when the small print of your insurance policy says otherwise. And, at the end of the day, your insurance provider won’t want to pay you money unless they have to. If there’s something in your policy that suggests your claim might not qualify, they’re going to jump at the chance to turn it down!

This is why it’s so important to check your insurance policy really carefully before you get it, so that you’re totally confident about what it does and doesn’t include.

When your insurance provider rejects a claim, they’ll tell you why. If you believe they’re wrong and your claim should have been approved, we’d always recommend making a complaint as they can often change their minds.

The first step is to complain to your provider itself. They’ll probably have a complaints department, although every provider will have a different complaints process. Check your policy to find out what you need to do, or give your insurance provider a call. It can be useful to show evidence of what you’re saying, like pictures of injuries, vet invoices and more. Sometimes your insurance provider may want your vet to provide more information before they’ll reconsider.

Hopefully, it will be second-time lucky and your claim will finally get approved. But if not, you can go to the Financial Ombudsman Service, which can help you dispute their decision for free.

Can you cancel pet insurance?

Normally, your pet insurance policy will last for 1 year and then you can renew it every year to get continuous cover. But what happens if you want to leave in the middle? Can you cancel?

You’ll be pleased to hear that the answer is yes! You can cancel your pet insurance at any time and, if you paid for the whole year upfront, you’ll normally get a refund for the remaining months. However, if you cancel your pet insurance for a reason other than the death of your furry friend, you’ll probably face cancellation fees. Read your insurance policy carefully to check what the deal is with yours.

Ready to protect your pet?

If you love your pet and want them to get the medical attention they need when they need it, you know what we’re going to say. Get them pet insurance sooner rather than later!

Not only will pet insurance keep your beloved four-legged family member safe, but it’ll also give you the peace of mind that you’re not going to get hit with an unaffordable vet bill anytime soon. Ready to get started? Here's how to get the best deal.

Ready to get pet insurance?

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