For many Americans, homeowner insurance is a useful way to protect themselves against a variety of potential problems, ranging from fire damage to vandalism and theft. Often, these insurance plans will also include liability coverage, which helps cover medical costs, repair bills and legal charges if someone is injured in the home. However, many Americans are finding that a key member of their family may not be included under this coverage: increasingly, American insurance providers are refusing to cover certain dog breeds, with some even considering homeowners ineligible because of their pet.
In 2013 alone, U.S. insurance companies collectively paid $483 million for 17,369 claims related to dog-bite injuries. According to the Insurance Information Institute, these injuries comprised more than one-third of all homeowner liability claims that year, averaging $27,800 per claim. The Institute noted that this number had increased 5.5% from the previous year, a fact they speculated may be due to “non-bite injuries,” like scratching, tripping, knocking someone down or frightening a person. But these claims are less costly than dog bites, which can require reconstructive surgery.
Attempting to cut their losses, many insurance companies now refuse to write policies for certain breeds that are seen as a bite risk, even if they are mixed breeds. These excluded breeds are most likely to include pitbulls and rottweilers, which are often viewed as aggressive dogs. However, Akitas, American Staffordshire terriers, Boerboels, chows, Doberman pinschers, English bull terriers, mastiffs, Presa Canario dogs, and wolf-hybrids may also be denied coverage.
Some insurance providers have attempted to compromise by offering overall coverage to homes with supposedly dangerous breeds, or even to the dogs themselves, while excluding liability coverage for bites or attacks. Often, the decision depends on the area the insurance policy would cover. In California, for example, insurers have been drawing back coverage for certain breeds since the early 2000s. This trend was likely due to a high rate of dog-bite claims; in 2013, the state had the highest number of claims at 1,919, totaling $64.7 million.
To avoid a problematic loss of coverage, many insurance experts recommend that homeowners check with their insurer before they buy or adopt a dog. In many cases, exempted breeds will be listed under the conditions the provider does not cover at the back of the policy. More importantly, if your pet is not covered, don’t lie. If you claim your pitbull is a poodle, your insurance company will consider the answer insurance fraud and deny your claim if your dog does bite someone.
However, dog lovers shouldn’t despair just yet. Some insurers do still offer coverage for exempted breeds. State Farm, for example, contends that any dog can bite, and trains its agents to only ask homeowners if their pet has trained for attack purposes or bitten anyone in the past. The company also co-sponsors National Dog Bite Prevention Week, which is held every May and works to educate people about canine behavior. Some might call this choice an unwise business decision, as the company reported 449 dog-bite claims in California alone in 2013, costing a collective $14.7 million. However, State Farm agents report that they receive numerous calls every week from dog owners who have been denied coverage by other providers.
“I personally have never had a claim that I’ve dealt with regarding this,” says Sherrie Creel, Principal Agent at Emerald Coast Insurance. “However, I have had people call here looking for insurance that own a dog that is on this list and has bite history – I probably saw 5 cases this last year. The only part of the policy this really affects is regarding their liability.”
National statistics estimate that 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs every year. However, there are an estimated 70 million dogs in the country, meaning that many of the animals (including pitbulls and rottweilers) are unlikely to cause a claim-worthy incident. Moreover, experts often state that learning about canine behavior can help reduce attacks, as most dogs attack when they are frightened or are defending their owner, food, or puppies. Proper breeding, training and socializing can also help prevent aggression and behavioral problems.