The young veterinarian scurried out of the examining room clutching a “pavement special” to her chest.
She headed to the scale at the far end of the room, obviously distressed. As she placed the dog on the scale, the receptionist yelled out past a customer: “She was a rescue; the people wouldn’t leave a number. It was weird, said they found her in a park, something weird about it.”
Her voice trailed off as the vet scooped up the injured dog and headed back to the examining room.
“Call the SPCA,” she said, leaving the reception area, “her hip is completely off.”
I was sitting on a bench in the reception area waiting to talk to the receptionist about so-called pet insurance, or medical aid for pets.
There were many questions in my head: Who owned this dog? What had happened to her? Had she been abandoned? Maybe her owners could not afford to get her fixed up. Where would she go to now? Would the SPCA put her down?
In a country in which 84% of the population does not have medical aid, pet insurance can seem like a ludicrous idea – a luxury for people who become too attached to their dogs and cats. But what do you do the day your pet is run over by a car or mauled by an aggressive dog? What happens when you are presented with a vet bill of R10 000 that you cannot afford?
The answer, according to many vets interviewed, is a lot of screaming and shouting. They all tell of hysterical pet owners throwing their toys out the cot in the vets’ waiting rooms.
“We have people freaking out about the size of their bill,” said one vet receptionist who did not want to be named. “They come here screaming and shouting, refusing to pay. They don’t realise how expensive medical care for their pets can be.
“We had a guy in here the other day with a huge bill,” the receptionist said. “He paid it and then signed up for pet insurance straight away.”
There are an estimated 10-million pets in South Africa, of which only 18500, or 0.19%, are insured.
Pet insurance companies
Three companies insure pets locally: MediPet-SA, PetSure and Onepet. By comparison, in the United Kingdom there are more than 40 pet insurance companies and in Australia, where PetSure has operated for 10 years, it insures 123000 pets.
PetSure has operated in South Africa for 20 years and has only 8 000 cats, dogs and horses insured by it. It is the only company in South Africa that insures horses. MediPet-SA and Onepet insure cats and dogs only.
PetSure has dominated the market since 1992 when it launched. MediPet-SA started in 2007 and, with 9 500 pets insured, has overtaken PetSure. Onepet was launched in November last year and provides insurance for 1000 pets.
But anecdotal information from vets and insurers suggests that an increasing number of pet owners are coming on board.
“Numbers are growing faster than ever,” said Clive Berman, managing director of PetSure. “If you look at the big increase in premium pet food you can see that people are spending more money than ever before in South Africa looking after their pets.”
Lot more claim forms
Berman said the main demographics for pet insurance products tended to comprise young women aged between 30 and 35 and the elderly, who treated their pets as companions and could not imagine not having them around.
Louise Beevers, a director of MediPet-SA, said the company was signing up more than 400 clients a month, most of them young professionals. “When we first started we weren’t even signing up 100 a month,” she said.
One vet, who has practised for 10 years, agreed. “There has definitely been an increase in the last few years. I am certainly filling in a lot more claim forms than I used to.”
So how does it work? Like all insurance products, the devil is in the detail.
The first question you need to ask yourself is: Will I be able to pay the vet bill upfront and then claim back from my insurer? If the answer is “no”, Onepet is the insurer for you.
Pay your vet
It costs R137 a month for dogs and R127 for cats. But the more pets you insure the cheaper it gets – three dogs will cost you R394 a month.
When you sign up you get a Mastercard debit card that you use to pay your vet. You phone Onepet, tell them you are taking your pet to the vet and money is loaded on your card. You will get R230 for a consultation, R450 for X-rays and R450 for blood tests.
If your pet has been in an accident or is seriously ill, you will get R10 000 loaded on your card, but there is a maximum amount of R28000 over 12 months.
One vet said many of his customers were using Onepet.
If you can afford to pay your vet upfront and then claim the money back, you can consider PetSure and MediPet-SA, but getting paid back could take two to three weeks.
PetSure will cost you between R95 and R175 a month, depending on what you want to cover your pet for, whereas MediPet-SA will cost you between R148 and R200 a month.
If you go for cheaper options, check to see what is covered, especially in terms of pre-existing conditions or breed-specific ailments.
Most vets recommended MediPet-SA, which they said had the most comprehensive coverage.
Also find out about the excess you will have to pay.
The manager of one veterinary clinic said it recommended MediPet-SA to its clients, between 30% and 40% of whom had some form of pet insurance.
This figure was considerably higher than other vets’ clientele, of whom only 5% to 10% had pet insurance.
On a visit to a park, only one of about 25 people interviewed had pet insurance. One woman, Nicole Levy, said she had had pet insurance for her two dogs for 10 years.
“It’s definitely worth it,” Levy said. “It’s better than human medical aid.”
She said she had claimed several times and the largest amount had been R12000, of which the pet insurer paid 80%.
Another dog walker in the park said his mother had insurance for her dogs, but he did not. “She swears by it,” he said. “But then again, if I am going to be honest, she loves her dogs a lot more than I love mine.”
He turned to his wife and asked: “Why don’t we have pet insurance?”
“We have had huge vet bills where we wish we had it,” she said, not answering the question.
Other dog walkers either laughed or quickly answered that they did not have pet insurance.
A few days later I spoke to Stephan Potgieter, a 29-year-old who has one dog and two cats insured with PetSure for R369 a month.
He said he took out the insurance in March last year after some “unforeseen” high vet bills.
He said it had generally been a good experience but, since he signed up, he had not had any major claims.