Pet health insurance is still somewhat of a novelty, as only a small minority of pet owners currently invests in these policies. As the market slowly grows, however, it's gotten more competitive, with more and more companies offering pet insurance.

Among consumer advocates, pet insurance can be controversial - many of them believe that instead of paying premiums toward a policy with limited benefits, pet owners would be better served to put away cash in a savings account. They point out that you may easily pay between two and eight thousand dollars in premiums over the life of your pet, and that you might not spend this much in veterinary care. But if you're the kind of pet owner who will spare no expense for a sick dog or cat, the type that would even pay for cancer treatments, then it's possible pet insurance may result in a savings for you.

Insurance policies vary widely in their terms of coverage and the amount you'll pay each month in premiums, making it somewhat difficult to compare policies from different companies. Make sure you understand all the terms and know how much of your vet bills insurance will cover and how much you'll be expected to pay.

Currently there is no system in place that provides consumers with pet health insurance ratings. However, here are some specifics to consider as you shop for and compare pet insurance policies:

The insurer: It's always smart to choose an insurance company that's been around for a while and has a good reputation. Your vet may have some thoughts on which companies have proven to be reliable.

Premiums: How much will you pay each month to keep the policy in place? In general, cat insurance premiums start at about $7 a month, while dog insurance can go all the way to $60 a month for some breeds. When you compare policies, don't just look at the premiums alone - cheaper policies usually carry less coverage.

Waiting periods: Does your coverage begin immediately, or does the policy have to be in effect for a period of time before it kicks in? A two-week waiting period is not uncommon.

Exclusions: After the waiting period, if any, is over, are there any conditions that aren't covered? Some policies may exclude certain conditions that are common to a particular breed.

Pre-existing conditions: If your pet has already been treated for a chronic problem, find out if that condition will be excluded for the entire duration of the policy, or if you can obtain coverage after your pet has gone through a period of stability without treatment, usually one year.

Deductibles: Often these are for an amount like $50 or $100, which you'll have to pay out of pocket before your coverage begins. The higher the deductible, the cheaper your premium may be. And be sure you understand exactly how it works - some policies have you meet only one deductible per calendar year, while others may charge you the deductible for each unrelated illness.

Expenses after deductible: After you meet...