So as veterinary medicine becomes more sophisticated and expensive, a few rounds of cat chemotherapy can easily cost $5,000 or more, many veterinarians say it is only a matter of time before pet insurance catches on in the United States.
Some employers, including Ralston Purina and Computer Associates, already offer pet coverage as a benefit to attract new employees, The New York Times reports.
"A few years ago, the concept of spending a lot of money on a pet was beyond the imagination," said Dr. Dale Bjorling, chairman of the department of surgical sciences at the University of Wisconsin's School of Veterinary Medicine. "But now, most people see them as a part of their family and they're willing to make strong financial commitments."
Just in the last year, according to the Times, Dr. Bjorling performed a kidney transplant on a cat. The surgery and subsequent treatment ran well over $10,000. Even common types of surgery, like a procedure to remove foreign objects from a dog's stomach, can cost more than $1,000, depending on where the surgery is performed.
The American Animal Hospital Association, based in Lakewood, Colo., surveyed 1,189 pet owners in the United States and Canada last year and found that nearly 75 percent professed a willingness to go into debt to pay for their pets' veterinary care.
For now, only a handful of companies offer insurance for the 59 million domestic cats and 53 million dogs in the country, according to the Times.
Several large insurers, including the Travelers unit of Citigroup, have entered and left the market. But another big company, Nationwide Mutual, owns 62 percent of Veterinary Pet Insurance of Anaheim, Calif., the largest pet insurer in the United States.
And the American International Group has begun selling Healthy Pet Insurance through a Chicago insurance brokerage firm.
Tom Kurtz, who started Premier Pet Insurance about three years ago, after himself receiving a $2,000 veterinary bill for his cat, Nick, said the industry is poised to grow, eventually to a dozen or so companies.
He estimated that about 80 percent of the pet dogs and cats in this country were probably eligible for insurance.
Veterinary Pet Insurance, which started selling pet policies in 1982, now has 200,000 policyholders, and revenue is predicted to reach $55 million this year.
Dr. Jack L. Stevens, the company's founder and chief executive, told the Times: "There's been many years spent struggling to build this market. Most people still think of pet insurance as something that's kind of strange."
Like health insurance for people, health insurance for pets covers a wide range of ailments, from eye and ear infections to hairballs to chemotherapy.
Though plans vary, the insurance typically pays a percentage of the cost for office visits, prescriptions, treatments, laboratory fees, X-rays and hospitalization; owners can generally choose any veterinarian. Some procedures, like neutering, are typically not covered in basic policies, although they may be included in more expensive packages.
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one estimate, Americans will spend $28.5 billion on their pets this year. In medical care alone, a dog owner spends an average of $196 a year, while a cat owner spends $104.