Marty Becker's Advice to Understanding 'Your Dog'

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Pet health insurance is really more like car insurance than an HMO: Although companies such as Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI) do offer wellness plans that may be helpful, especially if you're not good at saving or budgeting, the real benefit of the plans is that they cover a large part of the cost if something really bad happens— if your dog gets loose and is hit by a car, for example, or eats your underwear and needs surgery to clear the obstruction, or starts limping and it turns out to be cancer (which has never been more treatable, but treatment can be very expensive).

You'll still want to put some money aside— a pet health savings account set up like the old Christmas club savings plans (putting a set amount aside every month into an account with a dedicated purpose, whether it's buying gifts or paying for a possible pet emergency) is a great idea. Pet health insurance reimburses you for part of the expenses, not all, and you still have to pay your veterinarian up front, even if you're using a credit line as a temporary measure.

Pet health insurance isn't supposed to pay off more than you put in every year. It's not supposed to save you money on veterinary care and won't if your pet stays healthy. That's what insurance is all about: it's there when you need it, and it could save your pet's life.

Check it out. You'll want to look at all the companies, talk to your veterinarian, read the reviews, and fiddle with the formulas online to see what company and choices best fit your pet. Preexisting conditions are never covered, but a great many other things are.

It's worth it to never have to say, "I can't afford that, Doc, you'll have to put him down," or what most people say in order to live with themselves—"We decided we didn't want him to suffer anymore,"which could be interpreted as "I can't afford to do what's best."

Time: No One Ever Has Enough of It

You have enough money—or at least you're pretty sure you do. Do you have enough time for a dog? Some dogs, like some people, are high maintenance— they need lots and lots of attention. Sometimes that attention is in caring for a complicated coat, but usually the big time suck is in the category most Americans say they don't have time for already—exercise.

All dogs need exercise. Even little ones. Even old ones. Even ones who really don't seem to mind a sedentary lifestyle. They need exercise, just as you do, and for the same reasons. Exercise helps keep their heart healthy, helps keep their joints strong, helps keep their weight down. (Did you know that veterinarians say the majority— yes, more than half— of all dogs they see are overweight or obese? The statistics are even worse for some breeds that just seem to be born to blimp— Flabadors, er, I mean Labradors, Beagles, and Pugs, to name just three.)

Exercise—or more specifically, the lack of it— is also one of the main reasons why dogs misbehave. They need to burn energy. If you don't find something for them to do, they'll find something to do on their own, and chances are you won't like their choices in activities.

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