As a dog owner, you take on the risk your dog poses to others. We know it’s not fun to think that your dog can hurt someone else, but insurance is all about risk, and oftentimes owning a dog is factored into your homeowners insurance policy.
Consider this: according to the Insurance Information Institute, dog bites accounted for more than one-third of all homeowners insurance liability dollars paid out in 2015, costing in excess of $570 million. The average payout in a dog bite claim in 2015 was $37,215. According to Loretta Worters, vice president of the I.I.I., “the average cost per claim nationally has risen more than 94 percent from 2003 to 2015, due to increased medical costs as well as the size of settlements, judgments and jury awards to plaintiffs, which are still on the upswing.”
According to the MSPCA, it’s estimated that there are 4.7 million injuries from dog bites annually in the United States, with 800,000 requiring medical treatment. And while some dog owners may want to believe these injuries are breed specific, the MSPCA argues this is not the case. A dog bites for a variety factors, including a genetic predisposal to aggression, early socialization, training for obedience and fighting, and the quality of care and supervision. The MSPCA posits that an inherently aggressive breed who’s well trained and supervised may pose little risk, as opposed to a dog with a low genetic disposition to aggression that’s not been well trained or supervised. Furthermore, the MSPCA suggests that any dog, if subject to certain circumstances, such as being mistreated or provoked, can become dangerous.
These are eye-opening statistics. We treat our dogs as family members, and as such, it’s important to understand how owning a dog can affect our homeowners insurance, what’s covered, and what precautions we can take to keep our pets and others safe.
How Does Homeowners Insurance Cover Injuries Caused by Dogs?
If your dog bites, or scratches someone, or even if they trip over your dog and injure themselves, the liability portion of your homeowners insurance policy would cover medical expenses and lawsuits that may arise out of the situation (including pain & suffering). Liability policies typically start at $100,000, but you can purchase higher limits. While the average dog bite injury in 2015 cost $37,215, we recommend considering higher policy limits as reconstructive surgeries and lawsuits arising out of particularly bad injuries can run well over $100,000.00.
Your homeowners policy may also include “medical payments” which is coverage “designed to pay for medical expenses to others who are accidentally injured on an insured location or by activities of the insured, resident employee, or an animal owned by or in care of the insured. These payments are not based on the law of negligence; that is, no negligence on the part of the insured has to be proven for a payment to be made.”
Are Certain Breeds “Blacklisted?”
With the exception of homeowners policies in Michigan and Pennsylvania, it is not illegal for insurance carriers to discriminate against the breed of dog. For various reasons, many believe this is an unfair practice. Some argue that it discriminates against responsible dog owners who train and socialize their dogs and focuses on the animal, rather than the owner’s behavior and responsibility. The MSPCA argues that it has a ripple effect, in that potential dog owners may not adopt a certain breed of dog if they believe they cannot get homeowners insurance, leading to more dogs in shelters.
There are however, some insurance companies that do not blacklist dog breeds and will consider them on a case-by-case basis, such as State Farm, Liberty Mutual, Nationwide, Amica, Fireman’s, Chubb, and Massachusetts FAIR plan. These companies may consider a dog’s behavior and history, and if your dog has a Canine Good Citizen certification.
While many consider it an unfair and misguided practice for homeowners insurance carriers to discriminate against certain breeds, it’s important to know what those breeds are, and if you’ll need to consider switching carriers. The breeds most often discriminated against include:
What Can I Do?
Fortunately, in addition to some of the companies listed above who do not discriminate against dog breed, you can take extra precautionary steps. As a responsible pet owner, it’s not only imperative to keep your dog healthy and happy, but also to protect them. First and foremost, we encourage you to understand the specifics of your breed. Each breed (and dogs that have mixes of specific breeds) typically have attributes associated with it. You’ll want to do a lot of research before getting a dog (and after getting a dog) so you have a better understanding of your dog’s needs.
As mentioned early, any dog is susceptible to biting under certain circumstances. Whether they’re provoked or out of fear, you’ll want to anticipate and minimize their exposure to situations which may cause your dog to act out of character. Consider keeping your dog in a fenced in yard or restricted to an area where a passerby may not be able to reach your dog. Consider taking your dog to puppy school and/or obedience classes. We recommend seeking out professional guidance when it comes to training and socializing your dog, as this not only has immediate benefits, but a certificate may help when working with your insurance carrier. When introducing your dog to new people, educate them on how to approach your dog to minimize any anxiousness. If your dog exhibits anxiety, you may want to remove them from the situation entirely.
Consider neutering male dogs and spaying female dogs. According to the ASPCA, “intact males constitute 80% of all dogs presented to veterinary behaviorists for what formerly has been described as dominance aggression, are involved in 70%-76% of reported dog bite incidents, and are 2.6 times more likely to bite than neutered dogs, while unsprayed females attract free-roaming males, which increases bite risk to people through exposure to unfamiliar dogs and contribute to the population of unwanted dogs and potentially aggressive dogs.”
You can also consider purchasing a separate umbrella liability policy. Per the III, you can purchase an umbrella policy with $1 million in coverage for about $150 to $300 per year.
The bottom line is two-fold:
A) Understanding the nuances of your homeowners policy and what’s covered. Insurers are looking to limit their exposure to dog-related injuries and some may ask you to sign a waiver. You’ll want to notify your insurer of your dog, as failure to do so could result in a denial of coverage. If you’ll need more coverage, you may want to consider switching carriers or purchasing an umbrella policy. Again, do your research and speak with your agent to ensure that you’re properly covered.
B) Educate yourself on dog ownership, including breed specifics, and take any necessary precautions to protect your dog and minimize risk of injuries to others.
Having a dog is integral to many American families, and there are many of us who couldn’t live without them. It’s estimated that approximately 44% of all American households in the United States have a dog, with nearly 78 million dogs owned. With over one-third of homeowners claims payments being attributed to dog bites, you owe it to yourself, others, and your pet to make sure that you take all of the necessary steps to protect them.