How long have you owned your dog or cat? Do you consider them a member of the family? If your pet suffered from cancer, was hit by a car and sustained serious but non-fatal injuries, or was badly wounded in a fight, would you simply give your pet a comfortable pillow to lie on and hope that everything turned out well, or would you immediately take your pet to the local veterinarian for treatment? Chances are, if you're reading this article, you would head for the vet's office.

Once your pet has been treated, you might walk out of the vet's office with a hefty bill on your hands. Among claims submitted to Nationwide Pet Insurance, the most expensive surgical treatments for dogs are malignant (cancerous) skin masses (average cost $1,915), cancer of the spleen ($2,404), and crucite (knee ligaments) ruptures ($3,118). The costs of the most expensive surgical treatments for cats are less expensive, but only slightly so: malignant skin masses ($1,656), cancer of the spleen ($1,750), and cancer of the nasal cavity ($2,862) will all make a serious dent in any pet owner's budget.

With that in mind, does buying pet health insurance make sense for you?

How Much Does It Cost?

Prices vary and you should research different companies and compare the various plans that they offer. Coverage ranges from under $20 a month to as much as about $50 a month, with the average nationwide being just over $30. As with many other things, you tend to get what you pay for. Higher deductibles (the amount you have to pay before the insurer begins paying) mean lower premiums (your monthly fee). The age of your pet will be a factor and so will its breed, since some breeds have been inbred and are more susceptible to certain diseases and conditions.

What Does It Cover?

Most plans cover your pet for accidents (being hit by a car or injured in a fight), illnesses (diseases or conditions of almost any type), and wellness care (such as vaccinations, tests, and routine dental work). Plans are portable, meaning they will cover treatment from any licensed veterinarian in America. Some plans also cover (often at the cost of higher premiums) emergency treatment in foreign countries, third-party liability coverage for dog bites or damage to another person's property, advertising and reward costs if your pet is lost, the cost of hiring someone to take care of your pet if you are hospitalized, and even cancellation costs of a holiday trip if your pet suffers a serious injury on the eve of your departure and you need to stay home and take care of them.

What is typically not covered? Preexisting medical conditions, complications of pregnancy or birth, some routine care such as grooming, flea/worm/tick treatments, spaying or castration, the purchase price of your pet (assuming you bought it) if your pet dies after a certain age (typically 9 years).

What if Your Pet Is Not a Dog or a Cat?

Again, you should research a few different companies, but VPI Exotic Pet Insurance offers coverage for amphibians, birds, chinchillas, ferrets, gerbils, goats, guinea pigs, hamsters, hedgehogs, lizards, mice, opossums, potbellied pigs, rats, rabbits, snakes, sugar gliders (a flying marsupial), turtles, and tortoises. But don't ask me what the most common surgery for tortoises is!

Some Pieces of Advice

Don’t wait until your pet is old to take out a policy. Many companies will refuse a new policy for older pets but virtually all policies will continue covering your pet for their entire lifetime. Just as it is with humans, it's best to get coverage while your pet is still young (but not too young--most companies will not insure pets under 8 weeks old)!

Discuss insurance with your veterinarian. They will have knowledge of various insurers and will be able to give you valuable advice with respect to your particular pet.

Shop around! Get a quote from more than one insurer and demand a copy of the policy before you buy. If you don’t understand all of the terms in the policy, take it to your veterinarian and ask them to explain them to you.

Don't be bashful about asking for discounts. Many insurers will offer them if you have more than one pet.

When shopping around, pay attention to the lifetime maximum (almost every policy has one). Also make note of things like co-pays, deductibles, fees, and any restrictions concerning chronic conditions. If in doubt, ask for a complete explanation.

Look into pet insurance. Your best friend would want you to!