In Alberta, little Charlie suffered a broken jaw and fractured shoulders when he leapt off a multi-storey building. In Ontario, two-and-a-half-year-old Sierra swallowed a section of rug, rotting her internal organs over time. They’re heart-rending tales to be sure, and reminders of the value of health insurance—it cost almost $5,000 to heal Charlie, while Sierra’s multiple surgeries tallied more than $6,000. But Charlie and Sierra aren’t human—they’re two dogs whose owners enrolled them in pet health insurance, a little-used set of policies that can save dog- and cat-lovers thousands.
According to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association (NAPHIA), pet health insurance been available since 1989 and, despite more than a million policies in North America as a whole, fewer than 2 per cent of Canadians’ pets are insured. While that’s a bit higher than in the United States (which sits at around 1 per cent), it pales in comparison to the United Kingdom, where 25 per cent of pets are insured, or Sweden, where it’s more than 40 per cent.
“We just don’t know why that is,” said Dr. Berney Pukay, an Ottawa veterinarian who also serves as Ontario’s representative on the Council of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association. “We have this perception that ‘Well, it’s not going to happen to my pet,’ and then when they do get a veterinary bill, it’s like, ‘Damn, I wish I got it.’
Health insurance also provides new insights about the health threats that pets face. For instance, a new report by Trupanion—one of the larger providers of pet health insurance—says that most claims relate to items eaten by pets that aren’t food. In particular, its data suggests a correlation between places where the laws for marijuana were recently legalized—Colorado and Washington—and pets requiring visits to the vet after ingesting marijuana.
The core chemical THC is “potentially lethal,” says Pukay. Pets will react with the signs you might expect: unsteadiness, vomiting and, sometimes, falling over. The good news: “It’s really hard to find reports where the animal has died,” says Pukay.
Where the laws regarding marijuana are somewhat more lax, the numbers of pets getting ill are also higher; in fact, British Columbia tops the list for marijuana-related pet claims in North America. Alberta is fourth; Ontario is sixth. (Britta Gidican, a spokesperson for Trupanion, says the data may be skewed as the company has been in Canada for longer.)
Health care for pets is increasingly sophisticated. “Veterinary care has grown alongside human health care over the last number of years, so they can virtually do any treatment that they can do for their human counterpart,” says Kristen Lynch, the executive director of NAPHIA. “You can now treat your pet for cancer, but can you afford it out of pocket?”
Lynch, for her part, wonders if pet insurance may be lagging in Canada because veterinarians are hesitant to advocate a certain product, seeing it as a breach of ethics. “In the UK, they’re really partners in promoting, and it’s had a great impact to advance the veterinary profession there and in Europe,” she says.
Pukay agrees. “Most veterinarians perceive it as a conflict, but the American Veterinarian Medical Association and the Canadian Veterinarian Medical Association actually say in their guidelines in regards to pet insurance that actually we should recommend one or two, so you’re giving your opinion. We do it with nutrition: that is, out of the food out there, there’s this and this. And isn’t that still helpful?”
Pukay says that insurance helps to avoid a healthcare conversation that veterinarians dread, and that physicians don’t find themselves having: at what point are the costs too high? “There comes a breaking point. As health care workers, we need to advocate for the pet. There are a lot of pets that are being put to sleep that don’t need to be.”
Top regions in North America with the most marijuana-related pet health claims:
1. British Columbia
5. New York