The best pet insurance has

  • Comprehensive coverage options. While you won't find an insurer that covers pre-existing conditions, some do cover hereditary, chronic and congenital problems.
  • Clear exclusions. You shouldn't have to search too hard for the fine print on a pet policy. Make sure a provider's website thoroughly explains what it won't cover in layman's terms so you don't get a nasty surprise after a claim.
  • Customizable coverage levels. Even traditional plans with less flexible care options should offer some kind of choice on basics like annual maximums.
  • A reasonable waiting period. Fourteen days is standard, but coverage for some special conditions may have longer periods, and some accident-only plans have shorter periods.

Know before you go

What do you want covered? According to WebMD, most basic pet insurance plans cover accidents and illnesses, either separately or together. Some throw in prescriptions, but other providers skip them or cover them only at an additional cost. Other common add-ons include special plans for routine care, including yearly checkups and vaccinations.

How much do you want covered? Most pet insurers allow some degree of choice when it comes to deductibles, plan limits and co-pays. To save money on premiums, choose higher deductibles and lower reimbursement levels, but be careful: You'll pay more in the event of a costly claim. No matter what you choose, remember that pet insurers require you to pay out of pocket first and then wait for reimbursement.

Does the plan have a per-incident or annual deductible? An annual deductible requires you to pay the deductible just once a year. Per-incident deductibles must be paid for each separate incident, so if your pet has an ear infection in May and swallows a sock in October, you pay twice. As petMD notes, annual deductibles are generally less costly for this reason.

How old is your pet? Most pet insurers have minimum ages for coverage. Some won't cover older pets at all or will limit them to accident-only coverage. Your premiums may also creep higher as your pets age.

Are you insuring multiple pets? If so, check whether insurers will offer a multi-pet discount.

Is your pet prone to certain health problems? Some breeds are at higher risk for hereditary and congenital conditions such as hip dysplasia, notes petMD. Although no company will cover a pre-existing problem free and clear, some specifically exclude certain conditions from coverage even if they crop up after a pet is insured.

Do you have an exotic pet? Every major pet insurer covers dogs and cats, but Pet Insurance University says VPI is the only big-name provider to cover exotic pets such as lizards, parrots and snakes. Another option is a pet health-care discount program such as Pet Assure, which provides discounted care for any animal as long as the veterinarian is in its network.

Value expectations: The dollars and cents of it

Is pet insurance worth it? Veterinary costs are soaring and pets are living longer, making health problems -- and steep bills -- more likely. But according to ConsumerReports.org, the answer is still no, particularly for pets who suffer from few major health problems. Optional plans that cover routine care are a particularly bad bet, editors say. In contrast, veterinarian Doug Kenney recommends pet insurance for two reasons: First, plans are more flexible and comprehensive than ever, he says. Second, pet insurance can save you from deciding how much is too much to save your pet's life. Bottom line? Your heart and head have to decide this one together.

Pet Insurance Runners Up:

Embrace $7-$86 per month

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Pets Best $7-$38 per month

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