Small as they mostly are, the teeth of a dog or cat can cost as much or more to treat as human ones -- and pet insurance may be of limited help when it comes to paying those bills.
Dental care for pets is big business, with more than $5 billion a year spent in the U.S. on oral care products and services in 2017, according to market research firm Packaged Facts.
Attention to your pet’s teeth not only minimizes the pain and expense associated with dental emergencies, but can head off threats to the animal’s overall health, according to Atlanta veterinarian JoAnna Pendergrass. Writing on PetMD.com, Pendergrass notes that good oral health, among other benefits, can help prevent the bacteria in dental plaque from entering an animal’s bloodstream, which “can damage organs and make dogs quite sick.”
Despite the importance of oral health for dogs and cats, though, many owners neglect it. As an example, despite vets' recommendations that pets' teeth be brushed regularly, more than seven in ten cat owners and four in ten dog owners report never doing so, according to Canadian polling firm Ipsos. Such neglect can eventually lead to costly dental bills.
Here’s a rundown of what dental care for a pet can cost, along with how much of that expense pet insurance might reimburse -- and whether it’s worth considering buying a policy in order to get that help.
Dog and cat dental problems and costs
Pets don’t get cavities, but are otherwise susceptible to the same dental issues as their owners. And animals more often need to “go under” for dental treatment, of course, which boosts bills substantially. A general anesthetic can add at least $150 to the cost of a procedure that may already be in the high hundreds, according to Dr. Jan Bellows, President of the Foundation for Veterinary Dentistry and Diplomate of the American Veterinary Dental College. It isn't "out of the question" to run up a $1,000 bill for a dental procedure such as a tooth extraction, he says.
The cost may go higher still for the most intensive procedures. Pets do not get dental implants, Bellows explains, but they may receive root canal surgery or crowns. As is the case at a human dentist, either of those procedures may cost “ two or three thousand dollars by the time you're done,” Bellows says.
Unlike with many medical procedures, don’t expect a break if you own a cat rather than a dog. Dental work on felines can cost every bit as much as for canines, due to factors that include challenges related to cats’ smaller teeth and jaws. Claims data from Pets Best found the average cost of treating periodontal (gum) disease was $519 for dogs and $768 for cats.
Here’s what you need to know about dental work and pet insurance, along with some tips on preventative steps to reduce the likelihood of your pet needing treatment in the first place.
What pet insurance does and doesn’t cover
Let’s begin with the dental work that almost certainly isn’t covered by pet insurance: preventive treatment. Few if any policies reimburse the cost off teeth cleaning, even if you add an extra-cost wellness rider to your coverage.
And as with critical dental care, routine procedures for pets can be costly. “The average dental treatment by the American Animal Hospital Association, which is basically a teeth cleaning under general anesthesia with blood work, is $620,” says Bellows. “And if you need to add an antibiotic to the mix, which is common, that’s an extra $30.”
Dental disease itself is covered, including treatment for periodontitis -- the gum disease that dental cleanings are designed to prevent. But, as with medical conditions, the disease cannot be present when the animal is insured -- since pet insurance does not cover pre-existing conditions.
Further, reimbursement for periodontal treatments may be denied if the owner ignored calls to clean the pet's teeth. “If the insurance companies look at the record and the veterinarian says there is gingivitis or tartar on the teeth when the dog is two years old, and recommends teeth cleaning, and the client then doesn't comply, it makes sense that the insurance company wouldn't cover it,” says Bellows.
In addition, Burrows points out, some insurance companies don't cover root canal therapy, while others do so only on what are known as the carnassial teeth -- the large ones that cut food into pieces.
Damage to the teeth from accidents are covered by most pet policies. Note, however, that a few companies (see the chart below) cover only accidents, and omit coverage for dental disease.
Here, too, the ban on covering pre-existing conditions may complicate matters, says Bellows. He cites the example of a company needing to decide if a pet’s tooth was fractured before the animal’s insurance policy began. In his experience, though, including when consulting with Trupanion, “if it's a close call, between the client being right and the insurance company being right, [the company typically sides] with the client.”
Pet dental coverage for eight companies
|ASPCA||Yes. Accidents Only.|
|FIGO||Yes. Accidents Only.|
|Yes = Both accidents & dental Illness covered. |
No = Neither accidents nor dental illness covered.
Based on information gathered online in late 2020 by Money staff from the websites of the pet insurance companies, supplemented by research of other types. Confirm these details before you buy, in case coverage has changed.
Is pet insurance worth buying for dental coverage?
The short answer to whether dental work justifies insuring your pet is probably no. Why? Because dental bills, if sometimes high, are generally affordable for most owners. And prevention can mitigate the need for many of the priciest procedures.
Pet insurance makes the most sense financially in the event of prolonged treatment that runs up bills of four or even five figures, according to our analysis of its costs and benefits. You could run up those kinds of bills for dental work if, say, multiple extractions and root canals were required. But dental bills are less likely to be prohibitive than, say, if your pet were to require prolonged treatment for cancer or pricey cruciate ligament surgery.
Also, more so than with those catastrophic medical conditions, you can head off some of the most serious dental problems with an ounce or two of prevention.
Some pet owners, though, may decide the combination of medical and dental coverage for their pet - and the peace of mind it brings -- prompts them to insure their pet. Before buying a policy, though, keep in mind that you’ll have to cover an annual deductible (typically of between $200 to $500) and be on the hook for a copay (of between 10% and 30%). And factor into your math the policy’s annual premiums. The $350 to $600 or so a year you’ll pay to insure a pet could go a long way towards covering the cost of teeth cleaning or an occasional emergency.
How to minimize pet dental problems
Dr. Bellows says dental problems in dogs and cats are largely preventable -- often at little cost. He advises clients to regularly wipe their pet’s teeth with dental wipes, which he says can head off periodontal disease -- and, in turn, reduce the eventual need for surgical extractions and other expensive procedures. “You can imagine that if you go to your dentist and you don’t brush your teeth for a month, you're going to have gum disease,” says Burrows.
Other sources also recommend regular brushing of your pet’s teeth, with help from your vet to get started. “Most pets readily accept daily toothbrushing sessions,” says the Austin (TX) Veterinary Emergency and Specialty practice, which also writes that pets may appreciate “the extra attention, as well as the beef-, chicken-, or fish-flavored toothpaste.”
Such care should reduce the work required in a cleaning, says Burrows, as well as reducing halitosis in their pet. “People want to kiss their dog and hug them and speak to them. They get blown away by the bad breath. And if there's bad breath, that means [there's] periodontal disease.”
Similarly, Burrows urges pet owners to monitor what their animals chew, to minimize the odds of damaged teeth. In particular, he says, avoid such hard materials as bones and deer antler (a popular chew toy, apparently), which he says can fracture an animal's back teeth -- and eventually result in a painful abscess and a costly extraction or crown. Also, rawhide chews can pose a choking hazard, according to the Humane Society, which recommends hard rubber chew toys as a safer alternative.