Being a pet owner is a big responsibility. Whether you own a cat, dog or another type of pet, you want to keep them as healthy and happy as possible. Regular checkups with the veterinarian are a big part of that — and then there are the inevitable illnesses, injuries and other issues that need attention. The cost of veterinary care can be precipitous, though, and that’s why every pet owner should invest in pet insurance.

It is estimated that there are roughly 174 million cats and dogs in the U.S. and Canada. According to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association, only around 1.4 million of them—less than 1 percent—were covered by pet insurance policies in 2014. Given the exorbitant cost of many pet treatments, including around $5,000 on average for cancer treatment and around $3,300 for ACL surgery, it is surprising that more pet owners aren’t getting on board. Read on to learn more about pet insurance and why it is so necessary.

The Benefits of Having Pet Insurance

The primary benefit of having pet insurance is the peace of mind that you’ll enjoy from knowing that should your pet become seriously ill or injured, you won’t have to break the bank to get them the care that they need. By purchasing pet insurance that includes wellness coverage, it will be easier and more affordable to get your pet to their regular veterinarian checkups. Here are some important things to know about pet insurance, including its primary benefits:

Policy Type

Today’s top pet insurance providers offer many types of policies that provide various levels of coverage for various things. Basic insurance usually covers accidents and illnesses, but you can usually upgrade to a wellness plan that includes coverage for wellness checkups, vaccinations and the like. Some providers offer multiple policy options that offer different levels of coverage while others offer core plans that can be customized to include the features that make the most sense for you and your pet.

Premiums and Deductibles

Like most human health insurance plans, pet insurance policies have monthly premiums that vary depending on the extent of coverage that you are getting, the amount of your deductible for various services, maximum annual limits and other factors. You can expect to pay anywhere from $30 to $50 per month, according to ValuePenguin, but insurance is usually cheaper for cats than for dogs. The deductible is the portion of the vet bill that you’re responsible for paying before insurance kicks in. The higher the deductible, the lower the premiums. However, should you need to file a claim, you will have to pay more out of pocket to satisfy your deductible before the plan pays for anything.

Claims and Reimbursement

The most important difference between human health insurance and pet insurance is that the latter usually follows a reimbursement model by which policyholders pay for services at the time that they are rendered but are then reimbursed by their pet insurance plans. Some plans follow payment schedules based on “usual and customary” charges for various services; unfortunately, you are more likely to pay more out of pocket with such a plan. Better pet insurance plans reimburse a percentage based on the cost of the actual vet bill. The most popular plans offer lightning-fast claims processing, so you can get reimbursed as quickly as possible.

Annual Maximums

Not surprisingly, the higher a plan’s annual maximum is, the higher your monthly premiums will be. Given that veterinary services can cost upwards of $20,000 for serious medical issues, policies with low limits in the $3,000 to $5,000 range really don’t cut it. It is generally best to stick with a more expensive plan with no annual limit.

Waiting Periods

To prevent people from quickly buying pet insurance policies, using them to ensure that expensive services that their pet needs are covered and then canceling their policies, most pet insurance plans impose waiting periods on some services. It’s not unusual for there to be a 14-day waiting period for illnesses and a five-day waiting period for injuries. Some plans also impose waiting periods for specific conditions, which can pose problems if your dog, for instance, suffers from hip dysplasia and needs care right away.

Age and Breed Restrictions

If you’re buying pet insurance for a cat, you only really have to look at the age limits that may be in place. Usually, plans allow coverage starting at six to eight weeks of age for dogs and cats, but they often impose maximum age limits for pets that they will cover. The maximum age varies a lot from one plan to the next, so if you have an older dog, shop around. Although rare, some plans impose no age limits at all.

Pet Insurance Options

When you initially search for pet insurance for your dog, cat or other pet, you’re sure to be overwhelmed by the sheer variety of options. Pet insurance is a big business, and there are lots of players in the industry. Luckily, however, the best of the best is limited to just a handful of options, so it shouldn’t take too long to find something suitable. By understanding the primary differences between the most popular pet insurance options, you should have an easier time zeroing in on one that makes sense for you and your pet.

Pets Best

This company offers a variety of pet insurance plans, including accident-only coverage. However, its base plans have extremely low annual maximums that make them less appealing. On average, Pets Best plans cost around $38 per month—around $30 per month for dogs and around $17 per month for cats. Some of the top advantages of Pets Best include the fact that claims are paid within about five days and there is no age limit for enrollment.

Healthy Paws

One of the top advantages of Healthy Paws pet insurance is that it offers a single, comprehensive plan that covers many bases for an average of $37 per month. There is no limit on annual payouts, and you are reimbursed based on the cost of the actual vet bill. On the negative side, Healthy Paws imposes a 12-month waiting period for hip dysplasia, and it won’t cover the condition at all in pets who are over the age of six.

Nationwide

Formerly known as Veterinary Pet Insurance, Nationwide offers three plans that cost an average of $33 per month. Unfortunately, its base plans impose maximum payouts for many conditions and services. Its Whole Pet plan covers a lot, but it costs an average of $60 per month for dogs and $32 per month for cats, so it’s among the most expensive options out there. On the plus side, the $250 deductible is the only option, which simplifies matters.

Embrace

The biggest drawback of Embrace pet insurance is that medication is not covered. One of its top advantages, however, is that you start with a base plan and can then customize it to specifically suit your pet care needs. For this reason, the average cost per month for the base plan is just $13 for dogs and $9 for cats. The company will enroll pets up to the age of 14 years, which is flexible, and it pays wellness claims in about five days and illness and accident claims in about 10 to 15 days. You can choose from annual maximums ranging from $5,000 to $15,000 and from reimbursement tiers ranging from 65 percent to 90 percent.

Figo

With three tiers of coverage, Figo is a flexible option for many pet owners. It opened in 2015, so it is among the newest companies in the industry today. Choose from plans with annual maximums ranging from $10,000 to unlimited for optimal flexibility. One of the top disadvantages of this pet insurance is that claims are paid in an average of 30 days, which is much slower than most other providers.