Do you have pet health insurance?Which one of my animal-loving friends asked me this question recently I can't remember, but she was commiserating with me over the $4,000 in medical expenses my horse Tirzah required last fall. My answer was, "No." I have two horses, eight cats, three dogs and a pig, and the premiums for carrying pet health insurance for that crowd is out of my reach. Luckily, the horse veterinary practice I have used for 16 years is not only filled with incredible vets, but also they let clients carry balances at a lower fee than a credit card.I have long planned to write a column on the growing interest of pet owners in pet health insurance, and this seems a good time to do so.I failed to find any horse person who carries health insurance on their equines. But I found three dog lovers who do have insurance, and I know there are cat lovers out there who must as well.Melissa Thornton, a volunteer with Triangle Beagle Rescue, got Cody eight years ago when he was a puppy. "Shortly after that I got married, and while I was on my honeymoon in Italy, Cody got into trouble and had to have a $1,000 surgery," Thornton said. "My friend I left him with didn't know how mischievous beagle puppies could be." She wasn't sure Cody would live, and the newlyweds cut their honeymoon short and flew home.That experience sparked Thornton to look into pet insurance. She did some research and discovered that, at the time, there weren't many available carriers. She looked at Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI) and Petshealth Care Plan."I wanted to know what their limitations were -- what they would and would not cover, how long Cody had to be on the policy before he was covered, and what the claims process was like," Thornton said. She ended up choosing Pets-health, as it was less expensive and she could get a preventive health policy that covered basically everything.Two years ago Thornton re-evaluated the numbers and realized it was costing her more for preventive insurance than routine veterinary care would cost. She changed her policy to cover only accident and injury.This policy has covered Cody having X-rays and medication on his back. To make a claim, Thornton fills out a form provided by the insurance company detailing the circumstances and dates, and sends it in with a copy of the itemized bill from the vet with the vet's signature. "The company covers 80 percent after the first $100 I pay," Thornton said. "It is not 80 percent of what the vet charged you, but is based on standard prices the insurance company has figured."As long as she has dogs, she said, she'll have pet health insurance. "I don't want to have to pay another $1,000 vet bill," Thornton said.In November 2001, Lisa Stibal adopted Dakota Riley, a golden retriever puppy, and signed up for VPI. As it turned out, Dakota had numerous health problems and at the age of four passed away. "Everything with VPI was positive from the beginning through when Dakota passed away," said Stibal, who had signed up for major medical coverage as well as routine care coverage. When she got her two new dogs, Mr. Bear and Boomer, both mixed breeds, Stibal got them covered immediately. "I felt like it wasn't responsible to not get insurance once I knew it existed," she said. "Seemed like the good-mommy thing to do."The nuts and bolts of the coverage can be found on pet health insurance Web sites, but Stibal was willing to share her plan's costs. Each month, she said, the company charges $53 to her credit card. The base premium for Mr. Bear is $207.02 per year, and she also pays $99 for vaccination and routine care, plus an additional $6 for an I.D. tag with the number entered into a national database. The annual total is $312.02 plus a few dollars to put it on her credit card. Stibal puts in claims for both dogs' annual physicals and gets money back on the exam, vaccinations, testing for heartworms and worming medicine. "Even flea and heartworm medicine you can claim once a month," Stibal said. She hasn't had to put in a major claim."With these boys, knock on wood, they are very sturdy and healthy," Stibal said, but she hasn't even thought about canceling the insurance. "Frankly, I'm scared not to have it," she said. "What if the state said we didn't need car insurance? I think a lot of people would still get it."Lynn and Bill Miller's dog Juliette got sick on a Wednesday. The Millers did all they could, but by that Sunday Juliette had passed away.The bill was about $4,000. A month later, Juliette's brother Romeo got sick with an unrelated problem that eluded diagnosis despite incredible care by his vet and the staff at the N.C. State College of Veterinary Medicine. Cost: $8,000. When the Millers adopted Rhia, a Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen, they adopted pet health insurance as well."We got the Premium Plan through the American Kennel Club," Lynn Miller said. "It is $605 per year. You have to meet $125 per year and then what it does is pay 80 percent of your office visits, one physical a year, 80 percent of shots, and 80 percent of Heartgard and Frontline. Having the insurance is peace of mind."She and her husband didn't hesitate for a nanosecond to get the best care for Romeo and Juliette that money could buy, but it certainly did affect their finances. "The insurance will pay for $5,000 a pop if there is a big incident," Miller said. "That sure would have helped. The policy pays a total of $13,000 over a lifetime. It is worth it to us. Insurance is insurance. You pay into it to protect yourself."Obviously, pet health insurance is not for everyone, whether because of cost or because an insurer won't cover pre-existing conditions. Dog trainer Jane Marshall told me that her veterinarian gave one of her foster puppy's adopters some great advice. "This puppy picked up everything and chewed it, so she suggested pet insurance, as a swallowed item can be $1,000 to retrieve," Marshall said. "I have told all my students of this if they have those constant chewers. Makes sense to me."