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Australians spend billions on pets

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Australians are paying as much in vet bills for sick pets as it would cost them to buy a new car, research suggests.

Some are plunging into financial stress trying to find the money to pay for surgery and other expensive procedures for their animals, with bills over $10,000 not uncommon.

But while Australians spent $2.2 billion on vet bills in 2009, according to the latest figures from the Australian Companion Animal Council, fewer than 5 percent of pet owners have pet insurance.

The director of insurer Pet Plan, Doug Ford, said take-up was slow in Australia and that was exacerbated by poor economic data and rising fuel, electricity and food bills.

"I would say that pet insurance to a lot of people is a discretionary spend and where there is hard economic times obviously people think twice about buying insurance anyway," he told The Advertiser.

But at the same time, devoted pet owners are going to great lengths (and expense) to leave no stone unturned when it comes to their animal's health.

Research suggests that more are turning to alternative remedies from herbal medicine, acupuncture, homeopathy and allergy treatments to massage, chiropractic and even holistic dentistry.

While there is no data to show how many pets are referred to alternative medical clinics each year in Australia, some suggest it is in line with a global trend. In the UK, for instance, more than 15,000 pets visit animal psychologists each year.  

So are we a nation of foolish pet pamperers? And in tough economic times, can we really afford our furry friends?

Whether your pet is more likely to be found on a therapist's couch or a vet's examination table, at some point it's likely it will need medical attention, and vet bills aren't cheap.

Many owners were simply unaware how costly a trip to the vet could be, according to Ford.

"A lot of people don't understand that this is going to cost potentially tens of thousands of dollars," he said. "We have a maximum benefit of $20,000 and on several occasions that has been met."

Many owners don't have a clear financial plan to look after their pets, according to Choice spokesman Brendan Mays.

"Apart from the trusty (and potentially expensive back-up credit card, there are options to look after your pet regardless of your budget as long as you don't mind doing some planning," he said.

"For a start, you could self-insure. It's not ideal in a worst-case scenario, but if you have a low-risk house cat or your budget is particularly tight, putting money aside into a high-interest savings account could get you out of trouble. Unlike insurance, there're no restrictions or exclusions and if you don't use it you get your money back."

However, like all self-insurance, you may need more than your budget can cover, and you will need time to build up your savings. Pet insurance has is benefits, said Mays.  

"But you really need to be aware of the tricks and traps involved in this type of insurance."

According to Choice, most policies cover only a portion of the bill, leaving you with a co-payment, which is why it's important to always read the product disclosure statement before signing up for any financial product.

 

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