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A lizard, turtle and exotic fish isolated in a glass container
Vanessa Garcia / Money; Getty Images

Fish and reptiles may be less common as pets than dogs or cats, but they’re not necessarily less loved by their owners -- or less in need of medical care and even pet insurance.

If the care requirement surprises you, you haven’t spent time in the world of exotic pets. The medical issues vary by species, but Imani Francies, a pet insurance expert with USInsuranceAgents.com, says a host of reptile problems require treatment. Medical conditions, she says, can include internal parasites, diarrhea, respiratory infections, constipation, bacterial infections, and low blood-calcium levels. There’s even reptilian cancer, which may be treated in some of the same ways as with warm-blooded pets, according to the specialty medical site vetexotic.the clinics.com.

As far as our underwater friends go, Francies says that "fish can get sick from poor water quality that leads to them having suppressed immune systems, which reduce their ability to fight diseases,” adding that “a vet can advise an owner of a fish on how to care for the fish to bring it back to health and how to properly treat and maintain the water."

And while these pets tend to be on the small side, their vet bills aren’t, necessarily. For example, Francies says that for reptiles, exam costs can be around $50 to $100 and you can spend up to $200 for medications or microscopic exams. "Depending on the severity of an illness and any treatment, surgery and anesthesia can span from $150 to $350," she says.

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Insuring your exotic pet

Care for fur-free animals is a little harder to find than for traditional pets -- not all vets offer it -- as are pet-insurance companies that cover it. The biggest provider of pet insurance for non-furred companions is Nationwide, which covers everything from chameleons to iguanas to turtles. Smaller insurance companies such as Pet Assure and Prime Insurance also offer coverage for reptiles and other "exotics."

Among them, these companies will cover a lot of species, but they don't insure the entire dang zoo. As you might expect, insurance companies won't cover rare or dangerous animals you legally can't own, such as poisonous, endangered or threatened species. Also off-limits, says Francies, are "species that are kept in flocks (chickens, pigeons, etc.) "and hybrids of domesticated pets with a wild or non-domesticated species."

The basic insurance plans cover accidents and illnesses. If you want your creature to be covered for routine care, you'll have to pay extra. In that and other respects, insurance plans for exotic animals function the way they do for cats and dogs. The the cost of your monthly pet-insurance premium will vary based on the deductible you choose (typically $250 to $1,000) and the percentage of co-pay you elect (typically 20%, with 10% and 30% other common options.

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Is insurance worth it?

Insurance premiums for fish and reptiles are lower than for more popular pets. For example, a policy on a reptile with Nationwide can average around $9 per month, which is a fraction of the monthly averages of about $60 monthly for dogs $30 for cats. And your lifetime outlay in premiums will likely be less, too --since lizards or tropical fish typically live only 3 to 5 years. (One notable outlier are turtles, which can live between 50 to 60 years.)

However, even if per-visit costs can sometimes climb, reptile owners typically spend less overall on medical care than owners of traditional pets. Writing on petplace.com, Dr. John Williams estimates annual vet costs for lizards, iguanas, and snakes at no more than $100 to $125 a year. That compares with estimated vet costs, without preventative care, of $214 and $426 respectively, for cats and dogs, according to the American Pet Products Association.

In insurance terms, lower average vet costs make it less likely you'll run up bills in any one year that exceed the policy deductible. Also, as some fish owners know well, a smaller pet may simply pass away with little or no notice -- and policies do not ordinarily insure you for the replacement cost of a pet that died.

Ultimately, as with other pets, the value of insuring a scaly pet may depend on the type of fish or reptile owner you are. If you’re inclined to take any measure to save your animal, you may want the peace of mind from having insurance. On the other hand, if you’re fine with the possibility of an occasional high bill, or with the risk of not treating a sick fish or reptile at all, you’ll probably want to pass on a policy.

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