Dental health issues are some of the most common cases I see every day, and with them come uncomfortable conversations around the cost of treatment. Pet owners are often caught off guard by unexpected costs of dental treatment, which leads to anxiety, duress, and frustration. Such experience can result in loss of clients, bad reviews, and burnout amongst staff within the practice.
For pets, however, the situation is even more dire: deferred treatment, ongoing pain and disease, and, in some instances, relinquishment as the result of financial barriers to care.
I have seen first-hand how pet insurance and wellness plans can make a positive impact on these conversations. We need to talk about how these tools can help and the best practices for incorporating them into your practice.
Wellness plans for routine dental care
Ideally, pet owners should make comprehensive oral health assessment and treatment (COHAT) a part of their pet’s annual routine care. The reality is many pet owners will not budget for X-rays and professional dental cleaning. Without a deep clean below the gumline, the pet’s risk for periodontal disease increases significantly.
As routine dental cleanings are not generally covered under pet insurance, wellness plans can be an important tool in getting clients to schedule routine and preventive care appointments.
Some insurance providers offer wellness plan add-ons that can reimburse clients for a portion of their routine care—including routine dental cleanings. Pet owners also have the option of purchasing a stand-alone wellness plan not tied to an insurance policy.
Wellness plans help normalize preventive dental care versus reactive treatment.
Making pet insurance work in practice
Even with routine preventive care, many pets are bound to be diagnosed with dental disease or a fractured tooth at some point. This is why pet insurance is an important part of my conversations with clients.
While specific coverage will depend on the policy details, most clients enroll in a pet insurance plan that covers unexpected accidents and illnesses (e.g. fractured teeth and periodontal disease). When a client has the right insurance coverage, the focus of the conversation shifts from cost and becomes more about care.
This not only improves treatment acceptance, but it can also have a tangible positive impact on team morale as so many uncomfortable cost conversations and client conflicts stem from dental health issues.
For example, if we need to call a client during their pet’s dental cleaning to let them know of a tooth that requires extraction, a properly insured pet owner would be able to confidently move forward with the recommended treatment knowing their policy will reimburse them. This saves time and headache for everyone involved.
Depending on the insurance carrier, some pet insurance plans may cover tooth extractions, illness-related cleaning, periodontal disease, cysts, enamel, and unerupted teeth, deciduous teeth, and/or endodontic dental treatments such as dental crowns, root canals, and even dental implants.
There is no one-size-fits-all pet insurance
The “best” pet insurance depends on the pet’s breed, age, location, and more. Breed-specific risks and exclusions can drastically affect coverage options—and premiums change across a pet’s lifespan at vastly different rates depending on the policy.3 It is important for clients to compare options side-by-side and ensure their pet’s breed-specific health risks are covered. I also suggest to clients it is important to make sure the policy they decide to enroll with includes coverage for dental disease and necessary extractions. Not every plan does, and some cover dental health in different ways with different exclusions.
The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) recommends a free resource that makes it easy for pet owners to compare pet insurance options all in one place and see personalized recommendations.4 I lean on this recommendation and have found it simplifies the pet insurance conversation with clients drastically.
Rather than overwhelming clients with multiple brochures or risk recommending the wrong insurance coverage, I simply steer them to one trusted comparison resource and leave the “which insurance is best for me” question to licensed experts who are not biased toward any one provider.
As veterinarians, there are things we can do to help more patients get insured. One simple yet impactful tactic is to simply ask clients “Do you have pet insurance?” during office visits. That question alone can help instill in clients’ minds that it is something they should be considering and will help set them down the right path.
Make sure clients are aware of their pet’s unique health risks. Personalize the conversation to their pet’s breed, location, and how old they are in terms of their expected lifespan. Educate clients on how common dental issues are. Unlike other health issues that may or may not develop, dental issues are very likely to arise, and for some breeds are almost guaranteed.
Clients need to understand their pet is very likely to encounter periodontal disease or a fractured tooth at some point, and pet insurance can dramatically reduce the cost of treating those conditions in the future. Dental health treatment is one of the best use cases for getting pet insurance, as long as they have not already developed symptoms of dental disease (pet insurance generally will not cover pre-existing conditions). One opportunity that occurs quite frequently: if a client does not think they can realistically brush their pet’s teeth at home, then the conversation needs to be about budgeting for future treatment that they will very likely need—and pet insurance is one of the tools they should be aware of.
Pet insurance generally does not cover pre-existing conditions, so it is crucial to enroll before any known symptoms or diagnosis. Pet owners need to consider pet insurance as soon as possible, while their dog or cat is still healthy. Any new puppy or kitten appointment should include education about pet insurance and wellness plans. I would even go as far as saying every wellness appointment where the animal is healthy should include a conversation about pet insurance because the risk of their pet needing unexpected veterinary treatment grows each passing year.
Too many pet owners hear a diagnosis of developing symptoms during a routine appointment and then rush to get pet insurance to cover future treatment costs, but at that point, it’s too late. They need to be enrolled in coverage before any symptoms arise.
For clients who you know have pet insurance, before a major procedure, encourage them to call their insurance provider to get an estimate of how much they should expect to be covered. This will help the client avoid any frustrating surprises that often stem from not understanding the details of their policy terms. Encourage clients to clarify with their insurance provider what deductible they are responsible for, their reimbursement rate, their annual limit, exclusions, and waiting periods ahead of any procedure.
COMMON DENTAL ISSUES
|Generalized periodontal disease is the most common dental issue in both dogs and cats. By just two years of age, almost 80 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats have some stage of periodontal disease:1
The second most common dental issue I come across day-to-day is a fractured tooth. Many pet owners do not realize how dangerous hard treats and chew toys are, and if the root canal of the tooth becomes exposed in a fracture, it can ultimately cause the tooth to die and result in the need for extractions.
Ricky Walther, DVM, is a small animal general practitioner in the greater Sacramento, California area. Realizing the positive financial and medical impact that pet insurance can provide for pet parents and the profession, Dr. Walther lends support and advice to companies like Pawlicy Advisor (pawlicy.com), a free pet insurance resource recommended by AAHA that simplifies the process of educating clients about pet insurance, wellness plans, and veterinary financing resources.
- Wiggs RB, Lobprise HB. Periodontology. Veterinary Dentistry, Principals and Practice. Philadelphia: Lippincott–Raven, 1997, pp 186-231.
- Hoffmann TH, Gaengler P. Clinical and pathomorphological investigation of spontaneously occurring periodontal disease in dogs. J Small Anim Pract 1996; 37:471-479. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8912241/
- Mawhinney, Woody. “Why a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for pet insurance,” Veterinary Practice News. 2020, April. https://www.veterinarypracticenews.com/why-a-one-size-fits-all-approach-doesnt-work-for-pet-insurance/
- “Pet Insurance Resources,” The American Animal Hospital Association, https://www.aaha.org/practice-resources/pet-health-resources/pet-insurance/