It’s something we all worry that our pets might develop… but what is the financial impact of a cancer diagnosis for your dog or cat? Will that expensive pet insurance really help?

Is cancer common in cats and dogs?

Let’s start by understanding what we mean by cancer. Normally the division of cells in the body to create new cells is under tight control, so we have just the right number of each cell type – not too many, but not too few. Sometimes cell division can become out of control resulting in way too many cells being created forming an abnormal growth (tumour). These cells may stay put in which case they are referred to as benign. Or they may begin to spread around the body and are then often called cancers. Cancer actually comes from the Latin word for ‘crab’ – you can imagine the cells spreading out like a crab’s claws.

Almost half of dogs over the age of ten will develop cancer. We don’t know exact numbers for cats but we certainly see it commonly. The huge advances made in veterinary medicine over recent years, and the recognition of pets as part of the family, means vets can diagnose cancer more quickly and there are lots of treatment options available. 

The vet suspects cancer – what next?

There are no specific symptoms of cancer which is why annual health checks with the vet are so important to pick up on any changes early on. If you have any concerns about your pet’s health you should always contact your vet for advice. If your vet suspects cancer they may recommend tests to find out what kind. This may include biopsies, blood tests and x-rays, and special tests such as MRI or CAT scans. Your vet can then discuss treatment options tailored to your pet and your wishes. These can include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Your vet may recommend referral to a Specialist (roughly the equivalent of a hospital Consultant).

How much will investigations and treatment cost?

Costs depend very much on the diagnosis and also your own wishes. Special tests such as MRI can be around £2500. Some chemotherapy drugs require your pet to be admitted into hospital on a regular basis. Bills can quickly mount up. Cancer treatment tends to be fairly urgent – earlier treatment results in better outcomes – leaving little time to save up. Insurance can be invaluable so it’s important to check whether your policy offers sufficient cover.

Will the insurance cover it?

Well, there are a couple of factors…

When did you take the policy out?

First off it’s important to note that pet insurance policies will not cover pre-existing medical conditions, so taking out a policy when your pet is already poorly won’t help cover the bills for that problem. Some breeds of dog, such as Boxers and flat-coat Retrievers, are particularly prone to certain cancers and this is likely to be reflected in your insurance quote.

Which type of policy do you have?

There are two main types of pet insurance policy – annual and lifetime. An annual policy provides a set amount of cover for each new condition, but at the end of the year that’s it. You can continue to renew your policy but anything you’ve claimed for in previous years will be excluded. For some cancers treatment over many months, falling over more than one policy year, may be required. Lifetime cover provides a pot of money which replenishes each policy year (as long as you don’t have a break in cover) allowing you to continue to claim for ongoing problems. Both types of policy generally require an excess to be paid in the event of a claim. Bear in mind that generally once your pet reaches a certain age the excess will increase because older animals are more likely to have health problems such as cancer.

How much cover is there?

It’s important to look at the level of veterinary cover in your policy – £2000 may sound a lot but if your pet develops cancer that may not cover diagnosis let alone treatment. Always check the small print too; some policies may offer for example £5000 cover but actually that’s broken down as £1000 per condition so you have less cover than you may think. 

Will you have to pay up-front?

Some insurance companies can deal directly with your vet practice when it comes to paying for claims. This means your insurer pays the vets fees directly (excluding the excess) rather than you needing to find the money to pay your vet and then claim that back from the insurer. 

What about any extra cover?

Also consider that your pet may require referral. Specialist centres for investigation and treatment of cancers are thin on the ground so chances are you’ll need to travel; your policy is unlikely to cover travel costs and the bill for any accommodation for yourself.  Some insurance companies will only cover the veterinary bills for specific Specialist centres which may not be the centre your vet recommends – so check the small print here!

As vets we want to do everything we can to keep your pet fit and healthy but when the day comes bear in mind that most policies do not cover euthanasia nor cremation.

Insurance policies and cancer

The bottom line is that yes your policy may well cover cancer in your pet – but only if you’ve made sure it’s the right policy well in advance.