Nationwide Insurance recently reported the top ten medical conditions affecting dogs and cats and their associated costs based on data from claims from over 1.3 million owners for more than 550,000 pets.
I assumed cancer would be the top disease on the list for both species. It is the most frequently diagnosed illness in older pets and treatments can be expensive, therefore making it a “model” disease to be represented on a survey for pet insurance.
I was stunned to discover that not only was cancer not the top disease reported, it didn’t even make either list.
The top ailments in dogs included:
Benign skin neoplasia
Pyoderma and/or hot spots
Cystitis or urinary tract infection
Soft tissue trauma
The top medical conditions for cats included:
Feline cystitis or feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD)
Chronic renal disease
Upper respiratory infection
Inflammatory bowel disease
The results of the Nationwide report undeniably represent several areas of bias.
Though pet insurance is becoming more popular, a rise in the number of pets covered by insurance over the past 5-10 years is a relatively recent finding. Most owners purchase policies for their pets when they are puppies or kittens. As cancer is more frequently diagnosed in older animals, a disproportionate number of animals currently covered by insurance would be of a younger age than those expected to develop cancer.
Another confounding factor is that some insurance companies do not automatically provide reimbursement for diagnostic tests and treatment plans related to cancer unless owners have a specific rider for such coverage. Therefore, despite being insured, pets may not be eligible for reimbursement for cancer care simply as a result of lack of coverage.
Another possible reason for cancer not showing up on the survey is that despite the frequency that this disease is diagnosed in companion animals, owners are reluctant to spend money on the necessary recommended treatments.
This could result, at least in part, from the higher costs associated with medical care for pets with cancer. The diagnostic and therapeutic options I endorse can run into thousands of dollars. Few owners have such resources, regardless of what sort of assistance comes from an insurance company that is helping with the bottom line.
Setting these possibilities aside, I’m concerned that the absence of cancer on the list of frequent diseases covered by an insurance company is the result of owners who avoid seeking consultation with a veterinary oncologist out of fear, anxiety, or misinformation.
Each time an animal is diagnosed with cancer, veterinarians are responsible for disseminating information to the owner about the specifics of the disease, including potential causes, testing, and treatment options.
It is imperative the information put forth is accurate. Misinformation and miscommunication lead to distortion of the facts and could contribute to lack of treatment.
As an example, I recently met with an owner who, upon leaning of a diagnosis of lymphoma in her dog, described to me how her veterinarian instructed her that chemotherapy would cost upwards of $15,000 and would likely result in her pet experiencing significant illness from treatment for the remainder of its life, which would only be for a few short months.
Though she was provided with information, nearly every aspect of what this owner was told was incorrect.
While chemotherapy may be costly, protocols vary and treatment plans can be tailored for individual patients and their owner’s financial capabilities. Even so, $15,000 is a gross overestimation of the cost of a typical protocol.
Dogs undergoing chemotherapy for lymphoma are not constantly sick. In fact, more than 80% experience no side effects whatsoever. Those that do have a bad reaction are typically treated supportively and recover. And veterinary oncologists would never continue to treat a pet that is constantly sick from treatment.
The prognosis for dogs with lymphoma may be variable; however, most pets are living between 1-2 years after diagnosis rather than “only a few months,” as suggested by my owner’s veterinarian.
When myths and misconceptions prevent owners from seeking options for their pets with cancer, animals may not be afforded the opportunity to receive potentially beneficial care.
I don’t necessarily wish to see cancer topping the list of diseases covered by insurance companies, but I’d like to see every owner and animal have a fair chance at survival when this devastating diagnosis is made.