Dogs Take Bite Out of Homeowners Insurance

It's me or the dog. That's the ultimatum that some insurance companies give some canine owners searching for homeowners insurance or rental coverage.

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If you own a dog, insurers may charge you a higher rate, exclude your dog from liability coverage or turn you down cold based on your dog's breed, history of claims, the insurer's dog bite claims or all of the above, says Loretta Worters, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute.

"Some companies will strictly not write certain breeds of dogs. With others, breed has no bearing; it's really what their claims have shown," she says.

It's easy to understand why. According to the Insurance Information Institute in New York, dog bites account for one-third of all homeowners insurance liability claims, and more than half occur on the dog owner's property. Dog bite claims totaled $387 million in 2008, up nearly 9 percent from 2007.

Insurance companies contend they're merely managing their risk. But canine and animal rights groups denounce the practice as breed discrimination or profiling. Consumers and dog owners are caught in the middle.

But don't give up lovable Max just yet. There's a doggone good chance this story will have a happy ending.

Bad Dogs or Bad Rap?

According to the Humane Society of the United States, there are 77.5 million owned dogs in the U.S. One out of every three households, or 39 percent, includes at least one dog.

Unfortunately, those 77.5 million canines bite an estimated 4.7 million Americans each year, sending 800,000 to the emergency room, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So-called "bad dog" lists that grew out of CDC dog bite studies from 1979 to the mid-1990s typically include the pit bull, Rottweiler, German shepherd, Siberian husky, Doberman pinscher, chow chow, Great Dane, Saint Bernard and Akita.

Despite the fact that the CDC's studies were not intended to address dog-bite risk by breed, these larger breeds signaled danger to some homeowners insurance companies.

CDC spokeswoman Gail Hayes calls that a misinterpretation of the data. "Because we do not know how many of a particular breed exists, there is no way for us to then determine which breed may or may not bite more," she says. "You have to have that particular denominator to be able to determine that."

Dog advocates claim these "bad dogs" are getting a bad rap.

'The Deed, Not the Breed'

Larry Cunningham, assistant dean at St. John's University School of Law in New York, has studied breed discrimination since being denied homeowners insurance coverage in 2003. He says the CDC's 2001 nonfatal dog bite survey provided homeowners insurance companies with what they perceived as hard data to proactively limit their dog-bite risk by breed, despite the CDC's caveat against using its findings in this way.

Cunningham says that the only way to determine if one breed is more likely to bite than another is to count the number of bites per breed, then divide that by the total number of dogs in that breed within the general population.

"Without an accurate count for either, you run the risk of stigmatizing an entire breed as overly dangerous based on the breed's absolute number of bites instead of examining the breed's number of bites relative to its overall population," he says.

The American Kennel Club in New York insists no good can come from "bad dog" lists. "We feel very strongly that it's the deed, not the breed," says AKC spokeswoman Lisa Peterson. "There is no evidence that a dog would be inherently dangerous based on its breed. Every dog is an individual."

The Breed-Specific Legislative Debate

Breed profiling by some homeowners insurance companies followed a wave of breed-specific legislation by state and municipal governments to curb dog attacks, according to Cunningham.

"Highly-publicized, pit bull attacks in the 1980s led to knee-jerk reactions by many communities and objections to breed discrimination by dog owners," he says.

According to the American Kennel Club, only Ohio has a breed-specific dog law, in this case aimed at pit bull owners. However, a handful of states prohibit breed-specific legislation by local governments, including Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia. Only Pennsylvania and Michigan have laws that prohibit insurers from canceling or denying coverage based on breed, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

A spokeswoman of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners in Kansas City, Mo., says regulation of breed-specific underwriting varies by state.

"Some states allow (homeowners) insurance companies to attach a policy endorsement to exclude coverage for animal liability; these generally list the breed," she says. "Some insurance departments will allow exclusion of an entire breed of dog, but the company will need to provide sufficient documentation to support the exclusion."

How Insurance Views Dog Risk

On the risk scale, homeowners insurance companies view dog ownership somewhere between teenage drivers and swimming pools. Like teen drivers, the group may be risky but individuals within it may not. Like swimming pools, the risk is manifest; just as no one drowns in homes without pools, dog bites don't occur in homes without dogs.

The Insurance Informatin Institute's Worters says most insurers don't approach the problem from a breed perspective. "Most of them look at incidents where there's been a claim. Once a dog has bitten someone, then it poses an increased risk," she says.

State Farm spokesman Dick Luedke agrees: "Our underwriters believe it doesn't have much to do with the breed; it has more to do with the upbringing and training of the dog."

Cunningham says he understands why some homeowners insurance firms prefer not to take the risk.

"They lose absolutely nothing by not insuring pit bull or Doberman owners," he says. "So they lose a few paying customers. From their perspective, they lose a lot of risk, too."

Insurance Tips for Dog Owners

What can dog owners do when they've been turned down for homeowners insurance or renters' coverage?

  • Shop around: Insurance policies regarding dogs vary widely, by company, city and state. A call to your state insurance commissioner can help narrow your search.
  • Contact animal-friendly organizations: The Humane Society, American Kennel Club and national breed clubs can help steer you to dog-friendly insurers. Cunningham, once turned down in Texas for having two "dangerous" breeds, spent $10 to join the Farm Bureau and obtained homeowners insurance through the group.
  • Train, restrain your dog: Some insurers will cover your dog if you take it to obedience school or agree to restrain it with a muzzle, chain or cage, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
  • Read the fine print: Insurance companies may try to exclude dog bites or limit bite claims or claim amounts. Read your contract carefully.
  • Consider an umbrella policy: If your insurer insists on excluding your dog, a separate umbrella policy can provide the liability protection lacking in your homeowners insurance.
  • Dog liability insurance: If your dog has a checkered past, you may be able to obtain coverage through specialized dog liability insurance.