Almost everyone loves an energetic dog, just not one with energetic jaws. Dog bites can cost serious money to settle, and can even put your home insurance policy into peril. Here's how to make sure you're covered.
Liability claims from dog bites and other dog-related injuries in the U.S. totalled $797 million in 2019, according to the Insurance Information Institute (or Triple I) and State Farm. And while the number of dog-related claims was stable, the average cost per claim increased by 14.7 percent in 2019, to a hefty $44,760. That rise continued a trend that’s more than doubled the cost of the average dog-related claim since 2003. The culprits, according to the Triple I, are increased medical costs as well as the size of settlements, judgments, and jury awards given to plaintiffs, which are trending upwards.
This piece walks you — if you will — through some ways to minimize your dog's disruption to your insurance. Those curves can range from limiting your choice of company and coverage limits to costing you more in premiums. We also give you options to remedy the damage if your dog has already been a biter.
Avoid breeds deemed to be high risk
In response to rising costs from dog claims, insurers are tracking the breeds most associated with attacks, and adjusting premiums and other policy provisions accordingly. “Every company has their own underwriting criteria. The breeds of dogs that may make an applicant ineligible for a policy will vary by company,” says Don Griffin, vice president at the American Property Casualty Insurance Association (APCIA).
However, some industry insiders have assembled their own lists, based on interactions with insurers – among them Jason D Cass, managing partner with the Insurance Alliance, a Centralia, IL insurance brokerage. These are the six breeds Cass says most companies will not insure:
- Pit bulls and Staffordshire Terriers
- Doberman Pinschers
- Presa Canarios
- German Shepherds
Cass says he has also found five other breeds to be unpopular with insurers, if less widely so:
- Great Danes
- Alaskan Malamutes
- Siberian Huskies
- Wolf hybrids
These breeds — the first six listed, especially — showed up on a number of other online lists of problem dogs for insurance that we reviewed.
Of course, these are named breeds, and many dogs are anything but purebreds. Indeed, the list-topping pit bull isn’t even recognized as an actual breed by the American Kennel Club. Instead, “pitties” are a category identified by sight with physical characteristics like a muscular body and large head. The label can lump in any number of different breeds and breed mixes, including the English Bull Terrier, the American Bulldog, the Boxer, the American Pit Bull Terrier, and the American Staffordshire Terrier.
While insurers don’t delve deeply into DNA, according to Bob Hunter of the Consumer Federation of America, these groupings based on broad appearance still matter to numerous insurers when determining home coverage for a dog owner.
While Cass doesn’t counsel against buying any dog that's of a problem breed, he does recommend calling your insurance agent or company to find out whether they cover the breed, and if not, what it might cost to switch your homeowners or renters policy to a company that does.
Loretta L. Worters, a spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute echoes that advice. “Check before you purchase the dog to see what your insurer’s stance is on dogs,” she advises. "While the company won’t freely give away all the secrets to how it makes coverage decisions, simply describing the dog you own or plan to get to an agent will provide you with insight into how they approach such a breed."
Choose an insurer that doesn’t “dogscriminate”
The good news for canine lovers is there is no one-size-fits-all approach among insurers to dealing with different breeds. Farmers, Nationwide, and Allstate are among the companies that have been known to ban certain dog breeds from coverage. Other insurers will cover a breed seen as higher-risk but charge a higher premium as a result.
On the other hand, State Farm is among the few that don’t have any restrictions on breeds, according to Heather Paul, the company's spokesperson for pet programs. The insurer looks at dogs on a case-by-case basis, she says, taking into account the animal’s history of bites, if any. An agent may ask about previous incidents and inspect any legal claims involving the dog in question when issuing a policy.
“We recognize that breed or type is not a reliable or consistent factor in determining how a dog will react to certain situations,” Paul says. “Dogs are individuals, just like people.”
If your dog does bite or is involved in an injury, State Farm looks at every issue individually, Paul says. A serious bite could be grounds for exclusion in a new policy or policy renewal or even the cancellation of a current policy, she notes. But an excited dog, say, accidentally knocking over someone is likely to be viewed more leniently and may not even affect your insurance.
All insurers reserve the right, according to Paul, to terminate coverage or not renew a policy because of an incident resulting in a claim. They can also refuse a new policy based on a specific dog’s behavioral history after asking about it or discovering a past claim, regardless of breed.
Consider supplementary liability coverage
Homeowners and renters insurance policies typically cover dog bite liability legal expenses, up to a limit — roughly around $100,000 to $300,000 — Worters of the Insurance Information Institute says. That limit will suffice for the vast majority of claims, since the average dog-bite claim is for $36,000, according to the Insurance Information Institute and State Farm.
However, there are occasionally settlements that exceed $300,000. For example, the law firm Mullen and Mullen in Dallas says it obtained a $500,000 settlement after a two-and-half-year-old child was bitten in the face by a dog at a residence she was visiting, resulting in multiple lacerations to her cheek, chin, and eyelid.
If a claim exceeds a policy’s liability limit, the dog owner is responsible for all damages above that amount. Paul suggests a scenario in which State Farm offers up to $250,000 in liability coverage. But if your dog harms someone resulting in a $500,000 judgment, you’d have to pay the other $250,000 out of your pocket.
Another possibility is that a company will extend you a policy but only if you sign a liability waiver excluding the dog in its home coverage, Worters explains. They may do so either because the breed is seen as risky or because of past incidents involving the dog.
State Farm sometimes recommends adding a rider for extra home coverage if your dog has been involved in a liability claim, Paul adds. This can significantly increase the maximum payout on your coverage, for example up to $1 million, though it comes with higher premiums.
You can also supplement your financial protection against dog attacks in other ways. Options include a separate canine owner liability policy through a company that offers one, like Prime Insurance or Einhorn. Costs can be as low as $100 a year or less. There’s also the option to acquire an umbrella policy, an insurance option that extends liability coverage — typically of up to $1 million — to all aspects of your life, including reducing the risk of exceptional claims to your homeowners and auto insurance policies.
Train your dog, whatever its breed
Proving to your insurer that you’re a responsible owner sometimes helps in obtaining coverage and can even be a mitigating factor for a supposedly high-risk breed, Worters of the Insurance Information Institute notes. Certain insurers may offer credits or discounts for training such as from an American Kennel Club-certified trainer.
While State Farm isn’t among those insurers, company spokesperson Paul recommends training as a matter of course, and it never hurts to mention it when talking to an agent.
“While an overwhelming majority of interactions with dogs don't result in injury, most dog bites could be prevented by practicing responsible pet ownership,” Worters notes. Socialization is also key, she adds, helping “your dog feel at ease in different situations. By introducing your dog to people and other animals while it's a puppy, it feels more comfortable in different situations as it gets older.”
Tell the truth to insurers
It might be all too easy to avoid telling insurers about the breed of dog you own, or perhaps its history of biting. But experts advise against such fibs, because they can be make home insurance more costly for you in the long run.
Insurance broker Cass explicitly warns that hiding the fact that you own a particular dog or dog breed is “risky. If something does happen with your dog ….and you didn’t tell the agent or company, the insurance company may deny your claim. That could cost you thousands of dollars out of your pocket. It will also cause you to be canceled and you may not be able to get insurance in the standard market.”
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