Many pet owners believe pet insurance is a variation of human health insurance; however, pet insurance is actually a form of property insurance. As such, pet insurance reimburses the owner after the pet has received care and the owner submits a claim to the insurance company. Pet insurance policies primarily cover dogs, cats and horses through more exotic species of animal can obtain coverage.

UK policies may pay 100% of vets fees, but this is not always the case. It is common for UK pet insurance companies to discount their policies by offering customers the chance to pay an "excess", just as with motor insurance. 

Policies in the United States and Canada either pay off a benefit schedule or pay a percentage of the vet costs (70-100%), after reaching a deductible, depending on the company and the policy. The owner usually pays the amount due to the veterinarian and then sends in the claim form and receives reimbursement, which some companies and policies limit according to their own schedules of necessary and usual charges. For very high bills, some veterinarians allow the owner to put off payment until the insurance claim is processed. Some insurers pay veterinarians directly on behalf of customers. Most American and Canadian policies require the pet owner to submit a request for fees incurred.

Previously, most pet insurance plans did not pay for preventative care (such as vaccinations) or elective procedures (such as neutering). Recently, however, some companies in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States are offering routine-care coverage, sometimes called comprehensive coverage. Dental care, prescription drugs, and alternative treatments, such as physiotherapy and acupuncture, are also covered by some providers.

There are two categories of insurance policies for pets: non-lifetime and lifetime. The first covers buyers for most conditions suffered by their pet during the course of a policy year but, on renewal in the following year, a condition that has been claimed for will be excluded. If that condition needs further treatment the pet owner will have to pay for that him/herself. The second category covers a pet for ongoing conditions throughout the pet’s lifetime so that, if a condition is claimed for in the first year, it will not be excluded in subsequent years. However, lifetime policies also have limits: some have limited "per condition", others have limited "per condition, per year", and others have limits "per year", all of which have different implications for a pet owner whose pet needs treatment year after year, so it is wise to be clear which type of life policy you are considering.

In addition, companies often limit coverage for pre-existing conditions in order to eliminate fraudulent consumers, thus giving owners an incentive to insure even very young animals, who are not expected to incur high veterinary costs while they are still healthy.[6] There is usually a short period after a pet insurance policy is bought when the holder will be unable to claim for sickness, often no more than 14 days from inception. This is to cover illnesses contracted before the pet was covered but whose symptoms appeared only after coverage has begun.

Some insurers offer options not directly related to pet health, including covering boarding costs for animals whose owners are hospitalized, or costs (such as rewards or posters) associated with retrieving lost animals. Some policies also include travel cancellation coverage if owners must remain with pets who need urgent treatment or are dying.

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