LOS ANGELES - Melissa Yoakam jokingly calls her dog Shadow her "car payment" because she pays $250 a month for the 12-year-old's cancer treatments.
She'd pay far less if she had pet insurance, but she didn't take advantage of it when Shadow was younger and when he got cancer it was too late. She uses her experience to persuade colleagues not to make the same mistake.
"I should have it, but I don't," she lamented.
Yoakam is well-versed in the subject as benefits manager at Chipotle Mexican Grill, which is one of a growing number of companies that discount and subsidize pet insurance as a perk to workers.
The nation's oldest and largest pet insurer, Veterinary Pet Insurance, offers policies at 1 in 3 Fortune 500 companies, as well as 3,400 other companies and associations across the nation, said company President Scott Liles.
Other organizations, such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, also offer insurance through employers, but the number of people who sign up remains small.
California-based VPI has 61 percent of the niche market with only a half million pets insured nationwide. While that represents a tiny fraction of the estimated 165 million pets in the United States, it has huge growth potential as America's animal affection fuels new pet products, services and a higher level of health care.
"Like any kind of health-care offering, (pet insurance) is viewed as an employee enticement and retention tool," said Charles J. Sebaski, an insurance analyst for BMO Capital Markets in New York.
VPI offers insurance to companies with more than 100 employees, who can choose payroll deductions or direct billing.
Nevada's largest employer, MGM Resorts International, based in Las Vegas, added pet insurance in 2006 to a benefits package that also includes on-site child care, legal aid and free meals, said corporate benefits manager Melissa Friedman.
Chipotle, based in New York, began offering the benefit in 2002 because "we knew people were big into pets," Yoakam said. About 100 of the fast-food chain's 3,000 eligible employees get the insurance, a number that's low because a lot of the employees are younger and have other priorities.
Chipotle pays $10 per pet for up to three pets. One pet costs between $10 and $57 a month, depending on coverage plans and deductible. VPI adds a 5 percent to 15 percent discount, depending on the number of animals insured.
The insurance covered 60 percent of the cost of surgery after an employee's dog jumped out of a pickup truck and broke its leg. Another employee saved 70 percent of the cost for leg surgery for her dog, said Chipotle's benefits analyst Lindsey Cushman.
"She probably would have had it done anyway but it would have cost her a significant financial hardship," she added.
Cushman enrolled her cat, Delilah, in the program as soon as she was hired full time.
With the cost of health care for humans and pets rising faster than income, pet insurance is relatively affordable, Sebaski said.
"If you're willing to buy cancer meds or liver meds or put a pet through a surgical operation to extend their good health and life, those can be very expensive things," he said.