Millions of pet owners risk bills totalling tens of thousands of pounds as they've not insured their animal, despite spiralling veterinary costs.

Research released by trade body the Association of British Insurers (ABI) this week reveals that an estimated 67% of dogs and 84% of cats in the UK are uninsured, amounting to 12.4 million cats and dogs whose owners could be stung by hefty vet bills.

For full info on insuring your pets, including policy types and price comparisons, see our Cheap Pet Insurance guide.

What do the figures show?

More pet owners than ever are now taking out insurance, with 3.7 million households having a policy. However, 8.2 million pet-owning households remain uninsured – and cats are half as likely to be insured as dogs.

Last year, more than one million claims were made for the first time ever, with pet insurers paying out £775 million in total and the average claim hitting an all-time high of £757. Payouts have almost doubled since 2007, when the average claim was just £386, reflecting how treatment prices have risen sharply over the last few years.

Do I need pet insurance?

In most cases, if you don't take out insurance and Tibbles or Fido gets injured or falls ill, you'll be footing the bill yourself. Animal charities such as Blue Cross, the PDSA and the RSPCA do offer free or subsidised veterinary care, but only for pets whose owners are on certain means-tested benefits, among other criteria – see our Vet care 'fur' free blog for more. As charities they rely on donations to continue their work.

Bear in mind that treatment costs for pets can be huge, especially for bigger animals such as cats and dogs. An initial consultation costs an average of £30-£35 during standard working hours, but you'll pay a lot more if your pet needs an emergency appointment out of hours. Surgery carries an average price tag of about £1,500, while more complicated treatments could set you back as much as £30,000.

This is compared to an average annual insurance premium of £324/year for a dog and £171/ year for a cat – although you could beat this price by doing your own research and using our Cheap Pet Insurance guide for full help.

If you own smaller animals such as rabbits or guinea pigs, you may want to weigh up the cost of insurance against the price of potential vet bills.

What does the ABI say?

Joseph Ahern, general insurance policy adviser at the ABI, said: "Owning a pet can be rewarding, but also very expensive if they fall ill. None of us want to imagine anything bad happening to our pets, but leaving them uninsured can lead to expensive bills and unnecessary stress. 

"It's good to see the number of pets being insured growing, and the amount being paid out by insurers, but the fact that millions of pets still aren't covered means that owners are at risk of having to fork out thousands to cover the costs of vet treatment because there's no NHS for animals.

"No matter what type of pet you have, there should be a policy that's right for you. The market is very competitive, so be sure to shop around or speak to a broker."