The value of pet insurance: one sick kitty’s tale

Noodle, feeling better. Photos by Sue Smith.

Dec. 12, 2010: I pay off credit card debt and am, finally, a debt-free woman. Jan. 4, 2011: My 3-year-old cat, Noodle, takes an emergency trip to the vet and I rack up $1,600 in new debt over three days. Awesome start to 2011! To backtrack: that morning, Noodle had been vomiting foam for 24 hours. Cats puke; it’s a fact of life. But because it was continuous and foamy, I started to freak out (rule of thumb: whenever foam is coming out of an orifice, you should be worried). The next month taught me the value of pet insurance, the benefits of planning ahead for pet care and how an unknown bacterium can infiltrate your home and derail your financial plans.

The vet said she had jaundice because the skin around her ears and eyelids was yellow, and her pee was bright orange. They kept her for three days on IV fluids and medicines and gave her a kitty X-ray and kitty ultrasound, which were ultimately inconclusive.

Having paid off my credit card, I was unwilling to accumulate new debt. So, when, in the vet floated the diagnosis of a “fatty gallbladder” and a starting figure of $1,500, I did what any late-20s, struggling artist in my situation would do: I started crying hysterically.

I cried because I thought I couldn’t afford to save my cat. Jaundice indicates serious shit happening with the liver. The liver is a serious organ. This was all very serious. This is lovingest, sweetest cat ever, who sleeps next to me every night and started purring the first time I met her three years ago, when she was a little kitten just getting over pneumonia at BARC. I owed it to her to do what I could to make her better — even max out my $3,800 credit limit if I had to. (Please don’t interpret this as financial advice.)

I was totally pissed about that. I’d come to accept that I would probably always owe someone money, but I didn’t expect it to be so soon. I was just starting to pull myself out of the financial hole accumulated in my early 20s through years of heavy drinking and using a credit card to fund artistic dreams. I’d even opened a savings account.

Noodle, preparing for examination.


The good news is that Noodle’s home from the hospital, sleeping at the foot of my bed. She’s still yellow, but she’s eating normally.  A few days ago, when we found a large scab on her thigh, the vet sent me home with a maddening medicine schedule. Six medicines, two of which must be administered twice a day, for a total of more than $300. All told, after follow-up visits and medicines, I gained about $1,800 in new debt. The killer is that most of that money could have been handled by insurance.

I’d considered it in the past, the way you might consider comprehensive car insurance for an ‘87 Ford Escort and then laugh and buy the minimum required. It just sounded silly to insure my pet when I wasn’t even insured. But since Noodle’s ordeal, I’ve learned that it’s even sillier not to, because it’s so cheap.

Here’s some stuff I learned about during this ordeal:

  • Pet Insurance: It might sound silly to get insurance for your pet if you don’t even have it for yourself. But you know what’s even sillier? Not having it because it’s so cheap. 24PetWatch has various plans like the Quick Care for Indoor Cats insurance, which starts at about $12 per month and covers infectious diseases. If I’d had this plan, I could have gotten $1,600 back, after a $200 deductible. It also covers accidents up to $2,000. If you wanted to go whole hog, the $40-per-month plan covers all accidents up to $5,000 and illnesses up to $60,000 with $150 given toward vaccinations and check-ups annually. Forty bucks may sound like a lot of money, but it could have saved me from going back into debt.
  • is a great resource for comparing pet insurance providers. Sometimes companies won’t cover pre-existing conditions and won’t help you out in the middle of a crisis, but even the tiniest bit of coverage would have been a big help in my sitch. You usually pay the vet up front and then they reimburse you a percentage based on your deductible.
  • Vets: Costs differ from vet to vet and hospital to hospital. For example, a routine exam is $60 at one vet in Williamsburg but $49 at another, so make sure to quote all of the vets in your neighborhood before choosing one, and to ask or look around first to make sure the vet has some credentials.
  • Care Credit: a credit card for pet expenses with zero percent interest for one year. (Paws & Claws didn’t take it, so I couldn’t use it.)
  • Paws & Claws: Veterinary Hospital (Williamsburg) A very accommodating, professional and thorough vet (despite what some of those negative Yelp reviews may claim). Dr. Levine was warm and made me feel okay about leaving Noodle alone in a cage with strange people and an IV in her paw.
  • If worse comes to worse, use your credit card. Emergencies are why they exist. If you don’t have one, get one. If you messed up your credit because you were a punk kid, Capital One does a great low-limit starter card that can help get your credit back on track, or create a credit history if you’ve never had any.

14 Comment

  • i feel your pain. i had just built up a nice emergency fund when my little buddy started puking up foamy stuff all over in the middle of the night. an emergency vet visit, xray and bottle of laxative later, and i’ve got a healthy weasel and no emergency fund. oh well- better a healthy pet than a healthy bank account.

  • Great article. Definitely going to look into this. Thanks!

  • Let’s pretend you had bought the insurance plan you mentioned above. $40 a month for the three years you had your cat is $1440.

    You spent $1800 on the procedures. Subtract a $200 deductible for $1600. $1600-$1440=$160. By not having health insurance for your cat you lost $160, not $1800, and even less when you take into account a few dollars of interest you’d have earned keeping that $1800 in a savings account.

    Not every pet has major health issues in its lifetime. Insurance is a gamble, and even with your outlay of cash – you didn’t fare poorly not having it. Spending $160 more than you otherwise would have, for a chance at keeping $1440 was a good gamble. Probably the better plan is to put $40 a month in a savings account just in case. At least then if you never need the money you can keep it, whereas if you never need the pet health insurance you’re never getting any of that money back.

  • if this has done nothing else, it’s made me GD TERRIFIED to get a pet. thanks, sue. ya big fluffy jerk.

    seriously, though. great article.

  • Would insurance have covered all your costs, though?

  • Tough story, but glad your cat is ok.

    That said, without having actually used pet insurance, you’re really schilling for the industry with a series of hypotheticals.

  • how has no one commented on how adorable noodle is yet?

    but also: thanks! one of the most useful brokelyn articles yet, especially when taking Anne’s earlier comment into consideration.

    I’m glad noodle is on the road to recovery.

  • @Anne It’s true- not every pet gets sick, but many do. For me, now that I’m in my late 20s, I’m uncomfortable with risky shit that could cause me debt in the future. For example, I have health insurance now because too many people I know have gotten hit by cars while riding their bikes. Yes, it might never happen to me. But I’m willing to shell out some money to protect myself in case it does. Just not a chance I’m willing to take anymore… Also, I would never buy the $40 plan, which is one of the most expensive.

    @Lisa If advocating for informed, responsible pet-owning is shilling for an industry, then so be it.

    @Alan, Yes she is the most adorable cat in the world.

  • Oops! I meant

    @Alan If advocating for informed, responsible pet-owning is shilling for an industry, then so be it.
    @2_4Real Yes she is the most adorable cat in the world.

  • Pet insurance premiums for cats are very reasonable and in some cases significantly less expensive than the premiums for dogs.

    The key is getting quotes from all the insurance companies that offer policies in the U.S. You will be surprised at the variation between coverage and premium from one company to the next.

    You buy pet insurance primarily for those unexpected, large vet bills. Sometimes those illnesses and accidents can be much more than the example given by Sue. Sue is correct in saying that pet insurance should at least be given consideration by pet owners. Having available credit (since most of the time you will have to pay your veterinarian first and then seek reimbursement from the insurance company) and even some money in savings is a good idea also.

    Most of the people who advocate just opening a savings account instead of getting pet insurance are gambling also. They are betting that their pet won’t get sick until they have enough money in the bank account to pay for it.

    Pet insurance, available credit, and savings complement each other and each serves a different purpose when planning for ways to pay for your pet’s healthcare expenses.

    I am a practicing veterinarian who has written about pet insurance from a medical perspective. For more information about pet insurance, visit

  • I have been trying to find an insurance company that covers birds but have had no luck so far.

    I even contacted the Animal Medical Center but the insurance info they gave me was only for dogs and cats. Google didn’t help either. Any suggestions?

  • Kss,

    VPI will insure birds and exotics.

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  • Noodle is adorable!! I know there is a very important story here, but I am just so in love with that first pic of your kitteh.