If you own a cat or dog, you don’t mind shelling out for food and toys—but you probably aren’t spending the average $40 a month that pet health insurance costs. Fewer than 1% of pets are insured.

Should you? Not necessarily. If you can dip into your emergency fund to pay for expensive care, you can pass on a policy. But routine surgery can cost $3,000, and newer advances in veterinary medicine to treat cancer, heart disease and other chronic illnesses can cost much more.

Best bet: Starting insurance when a dog is a puppy or a cat is a kitten. Since your pet is unlikely to have a preexisting condition, you won’t be excluded for one. It’s true that premiums often rise with age, but some insurers also offer discounts for annual renewals.

If your dog or cat is older or already has a health problem, your insurance options may be more restricted.

If you shop for pet insurance…

Accident/illness policies, if your pet is eligible, are better than accident-only policies. Your pet is far more likely to need medical care for an illness.

Think twice before paying for “wellness” coverage. This covers routine care, including annual exams and vaccinations. Check what your vet charges—it may be cheaper to pay for these out of pocket.

Make sure your policy covers these four things—cancer…chronic disease (it should be continual coverage, not for just one policy year)…hereditary and congenital diseases…and medical conditions common to your pet’s breed and species.

Compare policies carefully. Research the underwriters’ financial strength by checking A.M. Best’s rating center. It is free, but you must register.

Your premium will vary based on what you choose for the deductible (generally $100 to $1,000 per year), copay (generally 10% to 30% of the cost of services) and the total amount that your policy will reimburse, which can vary from $2,500 up to an unlimited amount.

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