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Most pet owners don't insure their animal, but the option is growing fast in popularity. Many pet parents consider their dog or cat to be a family member, and a growing number are choosing to take out a pet insurance policy that covers them.

This guide assumes you've already considered whether or not it's worth to you to insure your pet's health. That decision hinges largely on the medical measures you’d be prepared to take, and vet bills you'd be able to pay, in the event your animal becomes very ill -- which is when pet health insurance most pays off. This story complements (and frequently links to) our in-depth reports on what pet insurance covers and costs, which are based on studying policies, interviewing vets and other experts, and surveying the price of policies.

Here's step-by-step guidance on buying pet insurance, including what coverage comprises and costs, and the decisions and complications you’ll face during the purchase process.

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What is pet insurance?

Pet insurance is health coverage for dogs, cats, and other pets that reimburses the costs of veterinary care for illness, accidents, and (sometimes) preventative care such as vaccinations and annual checkups.

How pet insurance works

As is often the case with health insurance for humans, pet health insurance covers medical bills minus a deductible amount the pet owner selects and must pay down before reimbursement will begin. Vet bills and those from veterinary hospitals and the like are reimbursed at a rate the pet owner also chooses, and there may be a limit on those reimbursements, too -- per year, over the animal’s lifetime, or by the particular condition treated.

Pre-existing conditions the animal was experiencing at the time a policy is taken out are not covered. There is also a waiting period after the policy begins during which some or all conditions may not be eligible for treatment if they arise.

Unlike human insurance, at least much of the time, pet insurance almost always requires you to pay for treatment immediately after receiving it, and then wait to be reimbursed by the insurance company. There also aren’t the same distinctions with pet insurance between in-network or out-of-network providers; practically speaking, vets are all “out of network.”

Who issues pet-insurance policies?

Many insurance companies known for multiple forms of insurance sell pet policies, including Nationwide, Progressive, Liberty Mutual, and Allstate. In addition, a host of pet-only insurers sell coverage. Specialty providers -- including some that made our list of best pet insurance providers -- include names such as Fetch, Trupanion, Healthy Paws, Pets Best, and PetFirst. Animal-advocacy group ASPCA also sells its own policies.

When should you begin insuring your pet?

Pet insurers and vets often urge owners to take out pet insurance as early as possible. That’s because premiums are lowest when the pet is young, and steadily rise with age, eventually reaching in old age as much as 10 times the rate charged for puppies.

The reason for lower premiums when the animal is young is of course that the risk of requiring treatment -- especially expensive care for serious illness such as cancer -- are correspondingly low. And unlike, say, term life insurance, where beginning coverage when the policyholder is young locks in a lower premium for the entire policy term, an early start to pet coverage generally earns you little or no price break as premiums rise with the animal's age.

However, waiting too long to pet insurance has consequences. The earlier you begin a policy, as a rule, the lower the likelihood of the animal developing a serious pre-existing condition. Such medical issues -- from diabetes to cruciate ligament injuries to kidney problems -- will disqualify you from being reimbursed for those conditions for the pet’s lifetime, And even the appearance of symptoms that might indicate a looming pre-existing condition -- such as the development of a limp -- may lead to a denial of treatment, because of waiting periods for treatment, which can vary by the particular medical condition.

What does pet insurance cost?

The precise premium you’ll pay to insure your pet varies by a host of factors. Those begin with the animal’s species, with dogs pricier to insure than cats, as a rule. Within species, mixed breed animals are typically the least expensive to insure, although some larger animals of unclear lineage may be costly to insure -- since vet bills tend to rise with the size of the pet. Among purebreds, certain breeds are pricier to insure because of a genetic propensity to certain conditions or to such costly behaviors as swallowing foreign objects.

The pet’s age also factors into costs, with premiums steadily rising with age. Some companies are notably cheaper than others. Indeed, when we surveyed costs for pets of the same age and breed in the same places from multiple insurers, we found premiums ranged by up to 100% -- that is, some companies charged double the price of some competitors.

As a rule, though, you can expect insurance against accidents and illness for a middle-aged pet to cost around $35 to $70 a month for a dog, and $20 to $35 or so for a cat.

Insurance is available, too, for almost the full range of other potential household pets, from reptiles and snakes through birds, rodents, and horses.

Decide how much pet insurance you need

As with medical insurance for humans, pet owners can choose how many health problems you want insured, as well as the size of the deductible and proportion of reimbursement that works for their budget.

Select the scope of coverage

Reflect on your coverage needs as you go over your options.

There are two major pet insurance plan types. First, you can select an accident-only plan. This is one is only offered by a few insurance companies, but it’s usually the most affordable option sold. Like it’s name suggests, it only covers accidental injuries, like broken bones, cuts, and toxic ingestions.

Comprehensive plans, which cover both accidents and illnesses, are the most popular. So-called “A&I” policies add coverage for major diseases like arthritis and diabetes, congenital conditions like hip dysplasia, surgeries, routine medication and even prescription food. Companies differ in if and how they cover a range of other conditions, from dog therapy to dental care.

A few companies even offer modest coverage against the loss or theft of your pet, although pet life insurance generally requires a separate policy. Many companies offer a wellness rider that can be added to an accident-only or comprehensive plan. Wellness coverage pays for preventive care, like routine check-ups, vaccination and flea and tick medication. Some people prefer to forgo this coverage because it increases the premium, and they may not see its value — annual costs for routine visits to the vet averaged $212 in 2019 for dogs and $160 for cats. Still, preventive visits are important to catch early those signs that could develop into major illnesses.

Choose a deductible

A deductible is the amount of veterinary costs you must pay out of your own pocket before the pet insurance company begins making payments.

There is a lot of variation in deductible offerings between companies. Most insurers offer annual deductibles between $100 and $1,000. With annual deductibles, if you didn’t reach your deductible before the end of the year, the insurance company will not reimburse you at all.

Picking a deductible involves a bit of guesswork: if it’s too high, you may not benefit from the insurance in a particular year, depending on your pet’s health; if it’s too low, your premium could increase exponentially.

Another alternative -- albeit not a widespread one -- is a lifetime deductible per condition. Each possible medical issue for which the pet is treated has its own deductible. Once you reach that figure for the particular condition, the insurance company will cover up to its reimbursement limit for the rest of your pet’s life.

Weigh the reimbursement rate and limit

Reimbursement is the amount of money the insurance company will pay back after you file a claim. There are two reimbursement-related decisions you’ll have to make: first, you must decide the percentage. Most companies offer various reimbursement options between 50% and 90%, with a few companies offering 100% reimbursement. The higher the percentage, the more money you’ll get in return, but the higher your premium.

Second, you’ll select a reimbursement limit. This is the maximum amount the insurance company will pay per year, regardless of cause. They can be as low as $2,000 or as high as $10,000. The lower the limit, the less expensive your premium will be.

A few companies have unlimited reimbursement, meaning that, as long as the cause is covered by the policy, the insurance company will pay its percentage.

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The best pet insurance companies for you

Once you’ve figured out which coverages you absolutely need and which you can go without, you can start to look for the insurance companies that offer those coverages, and decide the best pet insurance company for you, based on price and other considerations.

Gather premium quotes

Most pet insurance companies have websites with tools that allow you to enter your pet’s information and select coverages to get a monthly premium quote.

Check for bundling discounts

If you have car or home insurance, check if the insurance company you insure those with also sells pet insurance. They may offer a discount for enrolling your pet with them. Also, pet insurance is increasingly offered as an employee perk, so you might want to confirm if a subsidized plan might be available through your work.

Consult your vet -- but with modest expectations

Your vet may be able to advise you on which coverages to pick. They know your pet’s health best and can tell you what to expect further down the road in terms of congenital conditions or preventive illnesses.

In addition, your vet may (or may not) be comfortable in advising you on which company to pick based on their experience. Many vets prefer not to discuss insurance with their patients, so don’t be surprised if your vet dodges the question.

Some animal shelters, like the Animal Humane Society in Minnesota, offer complimentary pet insurance for a limited time to new adopters. This can be a way to explore the coverage and see if it’s a good fit for you and your pet.

Confirm coverage details

Once you have a shortlist of providers that appear to offer competitive pricing, it’s time to check some details of how policies cover certain conditions.

Comparative reviews of insurers such as ours offer a useful starting point to finding the best pet insurance. However, since policies can change from time to time, go to the insurers’ websites to review sample policies that detail coverage. For example, not every pet insurer covers dental work in all policies, and among those that do, some cover only treatment that results from accidents, not from dental disease.

If you can’t get the information you need, call or chat online with the company. Most insurers offer one or both services, at least during office hours.

Decide on payment frequency

As with other forms of insurance, you will likely be able to choose whether to pay your pet’s premium monthly or annually -- the latter for what might be a discount over making 12 payments over the course of a year.

More from Money:

Best Pet Insurance Companies

5 Best Cheap Pet Insurance Companies

How Much Does Pet Insurance Cost?