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Pet insurance may protect you from soaring veterinary costs

Pets are an integral part of many families, and their health problems can be just as traumatic -- and expensive -- as our own. The high cost of veterinary care, particularly for anything other than routine exams, can blindside a pet owner. That's where pet insurance comes in.

Pet insurance shares a lot of similarities with human health insurance. The industry lingo is the same: You pay a premium for each pet and you may be liable for a co-pay at veterinary visits. Your pet's coverage is subject to a deductible, and the plan may or may not have an annual maximum that caps the benefits your pet can receive. There are waiting periods before coverage begins and insurers won't cover pre-existing conditions. Sounds familiar, right?

The crucial difference between human and pet insurance is what happens after your pet receives treatment. You pay the full cost of services upfront, submit a claim to the pet insurance company, then wait to be reimbursed or told why your claim is being denied. With most pet insurance, you can typically take your pet to any licensed veterinarian.

Pet insurance comes in a few different types: traditional, customizable and discount plans.

Traditional pet insurance plans generally offer a few set levels of coverage for accidents and illnesses. The plan you choose may also determine your annual maximum, deductibles and co-pays, although you might be able to adjust these, too. Traditional plans can be simpler to understand than customizable ones, and may be more budget-friendly. The obvious downsides are you could pay for more coverage than you need or require more coverage in a specific area than the plan provides. A basic plan can cost $10 to $60 a month depending on reimbursement levels, maximums and deductibles, but your location and pet's breed may change that.

Customizable pet insurance allows more flexibility. These plans let you adjust maximums, deductibles, co-pays and other details to a greater degree than traditional plans. You may also have more options for add-on coverage such as routine care, prescriptions or special conditions. You could pay slightly more, and tinkering with every plan option might give you a headache. But the end result could be worth it if you know your pet well enough to anticipate its needs. A basic plan may cost $10 to $100 a month depending on reimbursement levels, maximums and deductibles, but your location and pet's breed can change that.

Pet health-care discount plans aim to keep things simple. While discount plans help pet owners save on veterinary costs, they aren't actually pet insurance. These plans offer a flat discount on nearly any type of veterinary care for any type of pet with few or no exclusions, so they're worth a look for pets with a history of health problems. Customers also save on their bill immediately instead of waiting for reimbursement. Veterinarians must belong to the plan's network, however, and the savings can be iffy compared to standard insurance. Expect to pay about $10 a month for a single pet. analyzes expert and customer reviews to evaluate the policies, costs and claims experiences of popular pet insurance companies. The result is our picks for the best pet insurance plans on the market.

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