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Donna Cochran doesn't have children, but her two dogs are just as precious to her as offspring. So when Bentley, a 10-year-old black and tan cocker spaniel tore his ACL in August, Cochran didn't think twice about opting for the nearly $5,000 surgery to repair her dog's leg.

Her decision was made much easier by the pet insurance policy that she purchased two weeks before Bentley's injury. The policy covered 90 percent of the procedure's cost, leaving Cochran with a modest out-of-pocket expense.

"My dogs are like my kids," the Geyserville resident said. "I would have done the surgery anyway. The insurance eased the pain for me."

Cochran, who is the office manager for Santa Rosa-based Vista Broadband, is one of a growing number of pet owners who have health insurance for their animals.

Advances in veterinarian medicine have made life-saving procedures like chemotherapy and kidney transplants available for pet owners — but at a cost. The American Pet Product Association projects that U.S. pet owners will spend nearly $13 billion on animal health care this year, yet less than 2 percent of the 75 million pets are insured.

"There are so many more technological innovations and treatments available today that your dog getting cancer isn't necessarily a death sentence," said Michael San Filippo, a spokesman for the American Veterinary Medical Association. "There are more procedures available, but they can leave pet owners wondering how to pay for it."

More employers are offering pet insurance as an employee benefit — about 3,600 companies, including a third of the Fortune 500. Pet health care as an employee benefit is one of the fastest growing segments of the nascent pet insurance industry, said Curtis Steinhoff, communications director for Veterinary Pet Insurance, the largest company in the market.

"The biggest trend is getting pet insurance through your employer," he said. "It's a benefit that employers can offer to employees without families."

Vista Broadband recently added pet insurance to its employee benefit package after employees requested it, CEO Scott Mindemann said.

"I hadn't heard about pet insurance, but after doing research, I found out how common it was," he said. "It was a no-brainer. It's a really cool benefit."

Half of the company's eight employees have signed up for a policy including Mindemann, who has two daughters and owns a 14-year-old springer spaniel named Sydney.

"Sydney is part of the family," he said. "I started thinking what I would do if she ran into a cost-prohibitive procedure. If it came down to breaking my daughters' hearts because we couldn't do a procedure, I'd find a way to do the procedure."

Vista reimburses employees up to $100 per month to cover their premium through Trupanion, one of about a dozen insurers.

A bare-bones policy can cost as little as $30 per month for a young animal. Policies get more expensive as owners add multiple pets and optional treatments such as acupuncture and hydrotherapy.

About 85 percent of all the policies cover dogs, and cats make up the rest. VPI is the only company that offers insurance for birds and exotic animals such as guinea pigs, hedgehogs and snakes.

Most policies won't cover certain dog and cat breeds that are predisposed to genetic disorders, pre-existing conditions or common chronic maladies like hip dysplasia.

Under most plans, the owner must pay veterinary expenses up front and then submit a claim for a partial reimbursement.

Consumers should shop around and compare different insurers to find the policy that is right for their pet, said KC Theisen, director of pet care issues at the Humane Society of the United States. They should also consult their vet, she said.

"It's critical to study the details of a policy and know what the costs will be," she said. "Over the life of a pet, insurance can be a really good investment. What we don't want is for a catastrophic event to prevent veterinary care."

Theisen said there is anecdotal evidence that pet insurance has kept many animals alive by making costly but life-saving procedures affordable for owners who otherwise would have had to put down their pets.

Not all pet insurance policies make good financial sense, though, according to the nonprofit Consumer Reports. Coverage can cost $2,000 to $6,000 over the life of an average pet. In a recent comparison of policies, the group found that the policy paid for itself only in cases where a pet requires very expensive care.

Instead of insurance, Consumer Reports recommends that pet owners start a savings account to cover medical emergencies for their animal.

For Cochran, pet insurance makes perfect sense. Her premium is $119 per month for both of her dogs, so after the $100 employee benefit, the policy costs less than a daily cup of coffee. She has a $250 deductible, which she reached after Bentley's surgery.

More important, though, is the peace of mind Cochran has knowing that a major accident or illness won't force the tough choice that many owners have to make between breaking the bank or putting down a beloved friend.

"It only takes one incident," she said. "So far, it has really paid off."