Lily Fortin with her poodle mix Scupper outside the Back Cove Animal Hospital in Portland. A hospital liaison at the clinic, Fortin has pet insurance for her two dogs and says having the insurance helps people make decisions about their pets’ care based on medicine and less on money. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Lily Fortin has invested a lot of time, energy and money into caring for her two poodle mixes, Scupper and Minnie.

They haven’t made it easy.

Between the two dogs, there have been vet trips for neurologic issues, seizures, gastrointestinal upset, allergies, hind-end weakness, back pain and Cushing’s disease, a condition affecting the adrenal glands. They’ve had frequent bloodwork, MRIs, spinal taps and CT scans.

The ever-accumulating list of diagnoses and treatments has racked up a considerable bill – about $23,000 in the last few years. But Fortin has only had to pay about $2,500 out of pocket. Her pet insurance policies took care of the rest.

“It is a literal lifesaver,” Fortin said.

Pet insurance has spiked in popularity as both pet ownership and veterinary prices have increased. The dozens of companies offering pet health insurance are reporting double-digit annual growth. And a growing number of employers – including several in Maine, such as Unum, the University of New England and MEMIC – are adding pet insurance to their voluntary benefits packages for employees.

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Those Maine companies do not contribute to the premium costs, but Nationwide, the underwriter for Unum, UNE and MEMIC, offers special coverage plans for people who buy through their employer, and group rates are lower than prices for individual policies. Maine Veterinary Medical Center subsidizes the cost of pet insurance for its employees.

People in the veterinary industry are vocal supporters of pet insurance and maintain that it is well worth the cost, while some pet owners balk at rising premium costs and coverage limitations, such as for preexisting conditions.

For Fortin, who works at Back Cove Animal Hospital in Portland and is all too familiar with the cost of veterinary care, it’s a no-brainer. It can take the financial strain out of heart-wrenching decisions about how to care for sick or injured pets.

“It’s nice to be able to make decisions based on medicine, not money,” she said. “I don’t know who could make a lot of these choices for care without pet insurance.”

She’s seeing more people come to similar conclusions. She estimated that about 50% of the patients at Back Cove Animal Hospital have some variation of coverage.

“We’ve just had a huge influx of young pet parents and young pets, and they’re trying to be more prepared for things they can’t budget for,” Fortin said. “It’s more of a conversation than it used to be.”

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The National Pet Health Insurance Association reported that almost 6.3 million pets across the U.S. and Canada had insurance last year, a roughly 21% increase from the 5.2 million pets insured in 2022. The North American pet insurance industry brought in over $4 billion from premiums in 2023, an almost 22% increase from the $3.5 billion sold in 2022, according to the association.

The average accident and illness premium was $56.30 a month for dogs and $31.94 for cats across all policies. But the actual numbers can swing widely depending on the age, health and location of the animal, as well as the details in the individual policies.

The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram received quotes for a $10,000, 80% reimbursement policy for four hypothetical pets from a handful of the top pet insurance carriers in the state. Premiums for dogs ranged from about $34 a month for a 2-year-old dog to $240 a month for a 10-year-old dog. Premiums for cats ranged from about $22 a month for a kitten to $38 for a 6-year-old cat.

Trupanion, a leading carrier in Maine, had higher premiums – between $208 and $936 for the younger and older dogs, respectively, and $70 to $160 for kittens and adult cats. However, Trupanion’s plans include unlimited coverage and no deductibles, and it pays vets directly, while other carriers reimburse pet owners after the fact.

Trupanion acknowledged in a written statement that its prices are higher at the outset but said other companies use a “reel-them-in-low” approach, only to dramatically increase prices as the pet ages. 

According to the Maine Bureau of Insurance, there are 22 companies writing pet insurance policies in the state, though the agency does not track the number of policyholders.

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A GROWING WORK PERK

Pet insurance as an employee benefit is gaining traction as employers seek ways to attract and retain workers in an increasingly competitive market.

Mercer, a human resources research and consulting firm, estimated that nationally, about 36% of companies with more than 500 employees offer pet insurance – a 22% increase over five years.

Unum is one of the latest companies to get into the pet insurance game, both for its employees in Maine and elsewhere and as an option in the benefits portfolio it offers to other employers.

The Tennessee-based benefits company announced last week it has partnered with Nationwide to launch Unum Pet Insurance after a pilot with Unum employees in 2022.

Cassie Pelletier, a senior administrative assistant for Unum, realized shortly after adopting Bailey, a Siberian husky mix, that pet insurance might be smart for the young dog’s “shenanigans.”

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Sure enough, Bailey ate a pillow. Pelletier, who lives in Gorham, took her to the emergency vet clinic, where they gave her medicine that allowed her to avoid surgery. But Pelletier still left with a $400 bill.

“I immediately decided we needed to get insurance,” she said.

She hasn’t had to file any claims yet, but the insurance gives her peace of mind for the “what ifs.”

Lily Fortin with Scupper outside the Back Cove Animal Hospital in Portland. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Pet insurance has been part of the voluntary benefits package at MEMIC since 2018. About 5% of the company’s 500 employees are enrolled, but there’s been an uptick in interest, said Kristen Wintle, director of payroll and benefits.

Offering pet insurance can be an employee attraction and retention tool, but it’s not something employees are clamoring for, said Kim Rummler, senior manager of HR consulting and compensation at Falmouth HR consulting firm KMA & Associates.

Some studies have shown that it’s the No. 1 requested voluntary benefit, and a report from Nationwide found that nearly 50% of Gen Z and millennial workers were more likely to stay at a job with pet benefits.

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But Rummler isn’t seeing that in Maine. At least not yet.

“I think we’ll see more and more of it as vet bills are getting higher and higher,” she said.

‘HOW AM I GOING TO PAY FOR THIS?’

Modern medical costs for a sick pet can be overwhelming for people who don’t have insurance or the savings to pay out of pocket.

In 2022, the Maine Veterinary Medical Center in Scarborough and its staff were inundated with hate mail and death threats after a viral news story about a customer who surrendered her injured puppy to the facility to save it because she couldn’t afford the $10,000 bill. The puppy was placed with a family that had the means to pay for the surgery.

It’s rare that an owner has to surrender an animal, but Elspeth Pennell, referral coordinator for the Scarborough clinic, said it’s not uncommon for pet owners to grapple with large, unexpected hospital bills. The hospital tries to be transparent about its costs, Pennell said, and has systems in place to help ease the financial burden, like Care Credit, a health care credit card that can be used for pet care, and other credit services.

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An initial evaluation at an emergency vet is approximately $150 to $250, according to Care Credit. With additional diagnostic tests, medications, treatments, hospitalization or surgery, costs for an accident or illness can easily exceed $10,000.

“It’s the last thing you want to think of when something scary like that happens, but unfortunately money is part of that conversation,” Pennell said.

About 17% of the new patients at MVMC have pet insurance. Pennell didn’t have historical data but said it has been increasing.

With the rising cost of everything right now, it’s going to be part of our future,” she said.

The cost of veterinary services has skyrocketed by nearly 60% in the last decade, according to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics. Costs increased about 7% between April 2023 and April 2024, more than double the rate of other goods and services.

Maine is one of the top five most expensive states for veterinary care, according to Care Credit, with a routine visit costing an average of about $81.

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Dr. Ezra Steinberg, a staff surgeon at MVMC, said he knows firsthand how important insurance can be when costs snowball.

In 2022, his yellow Lab, Sawyer, was diagnosed with skin cancer. Then an adrenal gland tumor ruptured, and he had internal bleeding. Sawyer needed blood transfusions, a stay at the hospital and chemotherapy.

Soon, Steinberg was looking at a $45,000 invoice. His insurance covered all but $4,500.

“I got an extra year of life with him. I would have had to say goodbye otherwise,” he said.

IS IT WORTH IT?

Not everyone is happy with their pet insurance. On social media, many have complained that their premiums have skyrocketed. Steinberg said one of his colleagues is canceling coverage for a 13-year-old dog because the premium shot to over $900 per month. Steinberg pays more than $210 for his current 2-year-old Lab.

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Others have complained that the insurance companies are overzealous about what they’ll consider a preexisting condition, denying coverage by arguing the condition was present before the pet was insured.

Steinberg said he’s seen interest in pet insurance cool somewhat as prices have increased, but he cautions pet owners to make sure they have a backup plan.

“Most dogs are going to have a multiple-thousand-dollar claim in their life,” he said.

Heather Sanborn estimates that the premiums to insure her two dogs, Loki and Calypso, have doubled in the last few years. 

But for Sanborn, co-owner of Rising Tide Brewing Co. in Portland and a former state legislator, the cost is still worth it.

Both of her dogs have been covered since they were puppies, which she said was imperative – getting a policy while they were still young, before they had diagnoses, was the only surefire way to get a lower rate.

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Calypso, 11, has been on arthritis medication for three years. Trupanion pays 90% of that cost.

“It makes her a pain-free dog most of the time, so to not have to be concerned about the cost of that medication is a huge peace of mind for me,” she said. 

In 2022, Sanborn sponsored a bill to clarify and strengthen regulations around pet insurance using language developed by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. Now a law, it outlines requirements for the sale of pet insurance in Maine, including clearly stating coverage exclusions.

Maine is the second state after California to pass a law regulating pet insurance. 

Matt Fortin, co-owner of Back Cove Animal Hospital, gets a lot of questions from clients about whether the cost is worth it. (Matt Fortin is not related to Lily Fortin.)

“I typically tell them it’s really a personal financial decision,” he said. “Worst-case scenario, you find yourself at the pet ER with a $10,000-$15,000 emergency – do you have the resources to cover that bill? If not, pet insurance can be a lifesaving option.”

The reality is, he said, pet insurance companies exist because they collect more in premiums than they pay out in benefits, so generally, a person is more likely to pay for insurance than to receive benefits.

“Whether you are on the winning side of that equation is just a gamble, but if it’s the difference between receiving lifesaving care or not, then I think it’s worth it,” he said.

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