Lewes, a 2-year-old cat owned by a Racelis family of Middletown, recently earned a pet insurance provider’s dubious title of “Most Unusual Claim of the Month,” after undergoing emergency surgery to remove a Nerf dart from his small intestine.

Alicia Racelis says her family has always enjoyed the tendency of their cat, Lewes, to act like a dog.

At least until December, when Lewes’ quirky personality resulted an emergency operation that later earned him the title of “Most Unusual Claim of the Month,” by the family’s pet insurance provider.

“Sometimes, we let our three boys open a few Christmas gifts early and this last year one of those gifts happened to be some Nerf dart guns,” Racelis explained. “While the boys were playing, Lewes began chasing the darts, but we didn’t really think anything of it, because he chases things all the time.”

What the family didn’t notice was that during this game of “fetch,” Lewes somehow managed to swallow a sizeable chunk of one of the foam missiles.

But the following day, it became apparent something was wrong when Lewes refused to eat. Even more alarming, he kept his distance from the family.

“That’s when I knew something was really wrong because he loves to be around people,” she said. “I felt like he was saying goodbye.”

Dr. John Weiher of Atlantic Veterinary Center took an X-ray of Lewes and quickly determined the 2-year-old cat needed emergency surgery to remove the dart from his small intestine.

Lewes went on to make a full recovery and the Racelises were eventually reimbursed the full cost of his $1,800 surgery by Veterinary Pet Insurance, which last month named his case the most unusual out of the 85,000 claims it processed in February.

That dubious honor means Lewes is now in the running for the company’s annual Hambone Award, named in honor of a dog that once got stuck in a refrigerator and ate an entire Thanksgiving ham while waiting for someone to rescue him.

“It’s not something we’re looking forward to winning,” Racelis said. “While it wasn’t a very fun experience when it was happening, our boys have definitely gotten a good laugh out the award. They’ve started calling the cat ‘Hambone.’”

The Racelises are among a growing number of Americans who have purchased health insurance for their pets, according to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association.

Currently, about a dozen companies offer pet insurance and those businesses have reported an average growth of 6 percent per year, the organization says.

Close to a million pets are now insured in North America, with $500 million spent on premiums each year, a fraction of the more than $50 billion that Americans spend on their pets annually.

“It’s something that’s been gradually growing in popularity,” said Weiher, a practicing veterinarian for 25 years. “We don’t actively push it in the office, but we do have information available and it does come up in conversation.”

Weiher said pet insurance can be most beneficial when an animal is young, because claims are often denied due to preexisting conditions.

“It’s something you need to get before your pet has a problem,” he said. “But when one CAT scan can cost $1,400, having the insurance can certainly give you more options.”

Racelis said she’s thankful her employer, Siemens Corporation in Newark, offers pet insurance as a voluntary employee benefit.

“We used to think it was too expensive, but after we adopted Lewes and our dog, we found out it would only cost us a couple hundred dollars a year,” she said. “For Lewes’ surgery, it was definitely worth it.”

But that’s not the only measure she’s taking to ensure Lewes’ health.

“After his surgery, I made sure to put all the Nerf dart ammo away so he can’t get to it anymore,” she said. “My boys weren’t too happy about it, but that’s not an experience I want to go through again.”