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By Mayra Paris and Paul Reynolds
April 1, 2021
Overweight cat and dog on a digital scale
Money; Getty Images

Everyone knows fat cats are adorable. Don’t believe it? A quick browse through the #catsofinstagram hashtag should convince you. But obesity in pets can lead to serious health issues — and serious costs for pet owners.

Dogs and cats that are carrying too many pounds is a widespread problem: a 2018 survey by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention found that over half of all domestic cats and dogs in the U.S. are overweight (a six or seven on the nine-point Purina Body Condition System), with 34% and 19% of cats and dogs, respectively, classified as obese (eight or nine on the BCS.)

It’s not just your pet’s health or your emotional well-being that animal obesity can hurt; your pocket can also take a hit, even if you have pet insurance. Here’s a rundown of what an overweight dog or cat can cost you, along with ways you can cushion that financial blow.

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Obesity and diabetes

“So what?” you might think. “My chunky pet is healthy and happy!”

But many of the conditions caused or exacerbated by excess weight are invisible at first, sometimes undetectable until it’s too late. They can gradually impair your pet and require increased medical spending to remedy.

The top 10 obesity-related medical issues for pets

Dogs Cats
1. Arthritis
2. Bladder/urinary tract disease
3. Soft tissue trauma (bruise or contusion)
4. Torn ligaments in the knee
5. Liver disease
6. Low thyroid hormone
7. Diseased disc in the spine
8. Diabetes
9. Chronic kidney disease
10. Heart failure
1. Bladder/urinary tract disease
2. Chronic kidney disease
3. Diabetes
4. Liver disease
5. Asthma
6. Arthritis
7. High blood pressure
8. Soft tissue trauma (bruise or contusion)
9. Heart failure
10. Gall bladder disorder
Source: Based on claims filed with Nationwide Pet Insurance, listed in order of most frequently to least frequently claimed.

Let’s look at several of the priciest of those conditions, starting with diabetes. Online veterinarian pharmacy Vetsource says that “an estimated 1 in every 300 dogs and 1 in 230 cats will develop diabetes during their lifetime,” with most dogs being diagnosed a few years after the onset of the illness. And, as with the propensity of obese humans to develop type 2 diabetes, excess weight is a key trigger of the disease in animals.

Diabetes is rooted in the body’s inability to secrete or respond to the insulin hormone. That impediment causes blood glucose levels to increase, which can lead to kidney problems, neurological issues, and even death if left untreated.

Cats and dogs use the same type of prescription insulin as humans, and the rising cost of this medication has been all over the news in the past few years, with some brands now costing as much as $300 per vial. Including the cost of insulin, syringes, veterinary monitoring and the premium paid in prescription pet foods, most owners of diabetic pets should expect to pay an average of $100 to $200 every month, according to Embrace Pet Insurance.

On top of that come the costs of diagnosis. Dr. Sarah Cutler, a Katonah NY vet, says diagnosing diabetes requires multiple blood and urine tests, which can amount to $300 to $400 in costs. There are also a series of follow-up visits for monitoring, she says, including a physical exam, checking the animal’s weight, and doing more blood work, says Dr. Cutler. Each visit costs “another $200 to $300, easily,” she adds. In all, Embrace estimates a diabetes diagnosis typically costs as total of between $500 and $3,000.

Arthritis and hip dysplasia

Excess weight can also cause additional stress, and wear and tear, to the joints of an overweight pet. One resulting condition can be hip dysplasia, in which the hip joint becomes loose and unstable and can cause limping, pain, and even arthritis. While it’s endemic in many dog breeds, such as Great Danes, Saint Bernards and Labrador Retrievers, it can be worsened by excess weight, which puts even more strain on the joint and can accelerate the condition.

The most effective treatment for hip dysplasia is surgery, according to an article by the Northeast Veterinary Hospital in Plains, PA. It’s a costly procedure that Northeast says can cost “anywhere between $3,500 per hip to $7,000 depending on your dog’s condition, size, age, overall health and other factors.”

Among the most common obesity-related conditions in cats is hepatic lipidosis or fatty liver syndrome, which causes liver function to break down and can quickly lead to death if not treated. Treatment typically involves implanting a feeding tube into the cat, which the owner then uses to feed the animal. That procedure can alone cost as much as $2,000, and costs can climb to as much as $5,000 to $6,000 if prolonged hospitalization is required, according to Catwatch newsletter.

Diet and responsible ownership are key

Many factors can lead to obesity in cats and dogs: age and being neutered are some of the inevitable elements that can lead to an overweight pet. So is the animal’s breed, with such popular dogs as Labrador and Golden retrievers and cats including Persians and Maine Coon having a greater likelihood of being obese.

Very often, though, it’s the pet owner who’s most responsible for an animal’s high weight. “Veterinarians have been sounding the alarm about overweight pets for years now,” said Dr.Jules Benson, Nationwide’s chief veterinary officer. “Part of the problem is that pet parents often don’t realize when an animal is overweight, or if they’re aware, they struggle with helping their pet lose weight.” Benson recommends getting a vet’s assistance to help design an effective weight loss plan.

Can pet insurance relieve costs?

Sales of pet insurance — as in health care coverage for your animal — have been growing, and it isn’t surprising that plenty of claims on those policies are rooted in the pet’s weight. According to Nationwide Pet Insurance, 20% of pet insurance claims are for obesity-related conditions, with a total estimated cost of $90 million a year in vet care.

The costly treatments for those conditions are the kind of expense for which pet insurance is more likely to pay off, our calculations find. And pet insurers fortunately don’t generally consider obesity itself to be a pre-existing condition that might deny your pet a policy.

To see how insurance might help with the cost of diabetes, let’s run the numbers for an eight-year-old cat that’s insured and gets diabetes. Provided the animal wasn’t already diabetic when coverage was bought, or soon afterwards, the cost of diagnosing the diabetes (an estimated $1,500) should be covered. And so should the ongoing cost of insulin for the animal which, as noted, could easily range between $1,000 and $2,000 a year.

Or, rather, most of those medical expenses will be covered. Depending on the plan you choose, pet policies require a co-payment of between 10% and 30% of bills, with 20% being common. There is also usually a deductible, with $250 sometimes chosen.

The cost to diagnose diabetes in our example cat might total $2,400 — combining $1,500 in estimated vets’ bills and, assuming a mid-year diagnosis, six months of insulin at $150 a month ($900). Pet insurance would take care of $1,670 of those expenses — assuming your policy paid 80% of costs, and you paid the first $250 of charges through your deductible. You’d then be on the hook for the remaining balance of $730. (You’d likely also need to pay 20% of several hundred dollars more in charges for follow-up visits after the insulin treatment was started.)

Pet policies also often come with limits on treatment — caps on annual or lifetime expenses for either all charges or those for particular conditions, such as diabetes. In this case, we’ve assumed, plausibly, that any annual limit will be above these expenses, and that any lifetime limits would not prevent covering at least a number of years of treatment.

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Deciding on pet insurance

If you can’t (or won’t) control your pet’s excess poundage, pet insurance might help in covering the cost. However, several caveats apply here, starting with the reality that it will be too late to get coverage if your pet is already showing symptoms of any weight-related conditions.

A spokesperson for insurer Trupanion, for example, said that “If it is determined that [the pet’s] condition is related to obesity, we would not be able to cover that condition if it existed within the look-back period or any waiting periods for that policy.”

The reason for waiting periods is simple: they prevent pet owners from rushing to insure their animals after any diagnosis or symptom pops up. The traditional waiting period for pet insurance policies is 14 days, but it is often longer for hip dysplasia — typically 6 or 12 months.

Pre-existing condition bans and waiting periods are why it’s important not to prolong insuring a pet if you plan to do so.

Be aware, though, that what you first pay in premiums for your pet will steadily rise as the animal ages, regardless of when you start coverage. Price hikes during an animal’s senior years can be steep, even prohibitive. Our recent price survey showed premiums soared by about 50% between the ages of 5 and 8 years, and again from ages 8 to 10. The hikes took average premiums from $48 to $71 to $119 a month for dogs, and from $24 to $36 to $50 for cats.

Those costs should we weighed against the low likelihood that your pet will develop weight-related conditions, particularly if you’re feeding and exercising the animal well. In addition, you’ll need to deduct pet-insurance premiums from the potential payouts to realize the net benefit from a policy. (The $1,670 in reimbursements we calculated for our diabetic cat, for example, would actually yield a net benefit of $1,240 after factoring in the $432 you’d pay on average in annual premiums.)

Granted, insurance also covers an elderly pet against whatever other conditions it might develop. However, odds are that your pet may never suffer those, either — and if they do arise, their treatment cost may not alone justify paying for insurance.

If you do opt to get insurance as a hedge against obesity-related conditions, start the policy when the animal is relatively young — and slim. Obesity and the conditions it triggers are less prevalent in younger animals than older ones, and if you wait until they develop, you’ll be unable to buy insurance.

Shop around for policies not only by premiums, which can vary by as much as 100% from company to company, we found. Also check and compare coverage by condition, noting any payment limits on any that tend to be weight-related. Look, too, at coverage for prescription medications, which is usually included in pet policies but with varying provisions, much as with human health insurance.

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