Lidia at 20 days old. Photo by David Lipton

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Pinky20days-5.jpgLidia at 20 days old. Photo by David Lipton

This is the final installment of our four-part series about shopping for pet insurance.

Shopping for pet insurance is much like shopping for a car, without the thrill of the drive or its intoxicating new-car smell. Once you lift the hood and stare at the parts, your brain spins. The messiness begins and you wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into.

I took a close look at the 11 insurers listed in attorney Adam Karp’s post for policies for my two healthy, young dogs, Lidia and Hogan.

Some plans cover routine office visits, some only as add-ons to the policies at an extra cost. Some cover only accidents. Policies reek of exclusions. Some cover congenital and hereditary problems, some do not. Most will cover emergency surgery, but some won’t cover the vet’s exam that may lead to the emergency surgery.

Waiting periods — before policy coverage will kick in for a given ailment — are hidden like an annoying rattle in the front end of that new car.

The policy I want does not have to cover routine or wellness care, such as annual exams, vaccinations, dental cleanings or flea control. I should be able to pay for those basics myself. I’m more interested in covering the medical nightmares and the unexpected, because past experience has sadly and expensively proved that I am not immune.

But I have a few deal-breakers:

— Broad coverage: The policy must cover all illnesses, accidents, cancers, catastrophic situations, chronic diseases, advanced testing, medications and hospital stays. This should include congenital and hereditary conditions, because some of these problems only become evident as the dog ages.

– Big-ticket items must be covered. Take anterior cruciate ligament (knee) tears, for example. My two pups have healthy knees; the vet has checked. But Lidia and Hogan are young and daring. They run and roughhouse with a frightening zeal, and one wrong turn or leap could be disastrous.

— No benefit schedule. The policy must pay a flat percentage of the bill, not an amount preset by the insurer. I’ve been stung by benefit schedules in the past that paid pennies on the dollar. Such schedules typically haven’t kept pace with the speed at which veterinary care — and its price tag — are advancing.

I also want to avoid policies that specifically cover only “reasonable,” “usual” or “customary” charges. Those vague words are like land mines in an insurance policy. They won’t guarantee the actual charges will be fully covered.

— The list of policy exclusions must be reasonable. No company covers pre-existing conditions, but it should cover things like cataract surgery, knee injuries, diabetes and other chronic conditions that can creep up as a dog ages.

— I must be able to choose my vets and seek the care of specialists at my discretion. And the policy must also cover veterinary care in Canada, should the dogs become ill while visiting there with me.

These deal-breakers helped me weed out companies that didn’t fit my needs, so I could concentrate on a narrower list of those that do.