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Home insurance for dog owners

dog mug shotDepending on what breed of dog you own, where you live and your insurance company, it could be difficult to buy a home insurance policy that includes liability for your dog.

Roughly 39 percent of American households have at least one dog, according to The Humane Society of the United States. But as the costs of dog-bite litigation spiral, some home insurance companies are refusing to write coverage for owners of certain breeds. According to the Insurance Information Institute (III), dog-bite claims account for more than one-third of all homeowners insurance liability claims, costing insurers about $479 million in 2011, up 16 percent from the previous year.

Dog bite primer

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that dogs bite 4.7 million people annually, resulting in 800,000 injuries that require medical attention.

The average cost of a dog-bite insurance claim was $29,396 in 2011, according to III.

Roughly 39 percent of American households have at least one dog, according to The Humane Society of the United States

According to III, dog bite claims cost insurers about $479 million in 2011, up by 16 percent from the previous year.

A number of states make dog owners legally liable for deaths or injuries caused by their dogs. Pennsylvania and Michigan have laws that prohibit insurers from canceling or denying coverage to owners of specific breeds, according to III.

While there might not be an industry-wide "blacklist" of breeds, it's best to check with your agent before you buy certain dog breeds. According to the Lester Kalmanson Agency Inc. — which sells liability insurance to owners of dogs commonly identified as "dangerous breeds" — the list could include:

  • Pit bulls
  • Rottweilers
  • Chow chows
  • German shepherds
  • Siberian huskies
  • Alaskan malamutes
  • Doberman pinschers
  • Presa Canario bulldogs
  • Great Danes
  • Boxers
  • Akitas
  • Wolf-hybrids

Some home insurance companies have lists of breeds and crossbreeds they will not insure; other insurers consider such breeds on a case-by-case basis, or charge more for certain "biting" breeds such as pit bulls. Some home insurers require dog owners to sign liability waivers for dog bites.

In Michigan and Pennsylvania, it's illegal for home insurers to deny coverage simply because a home has a dog of a particular breed, according to III.

Some insurance companies will sell you coverage regardless of what type of breed you own. Jeff McCollum, a spokesperson for State Farm, says that there are good and bad dogs within each breed, just like there are responsible and irresponsible dog owners.

State Farm does require policyholders to answer questions about dogs on their home insurance applications. Specifically, the company wants to know if a dog has ever bitten anyone or if it has been trained for attack purposes.

If the dog has bitten someone, State Farm will want to know the circumstances surrounding the bite to determine if it is likely to happen again and if precautions have been taken to prevent it. Other factors the company looks at are the seriousness of the injury and whether the attack was provoked or unprovoked.

State Farm paid out roughly $80 million annually, from 2002 to 2008, for dog bite-related claims, McCollum says. While the overall number of bites appears to be decreasing, the rise of medical costs per incident offsets the decrease, he adds.

Dog bite history

Some companies will ask "Do you own a vicious dog?" on homeowner insurance applications. Previous dog-bite incidents will show up on your claims history, which insurers check before issuing a policy. Some insurers will consider whether an attack was provoked or unprovoked, but it depends on the dog's history.

But other insurers may cancel or refuse to renew an existing home insurance policy, decline your application for a new one or attach an exclusion for the dog to the policy — if your dog has even one attack in its history. The exclusion means the insurance policy would not cover any liability claims caused by the dog, making you personally responsible for any medical bills or lawsuits stemming from your dog's actions.

Prevention is the best way to avoid home insurance claims

beware of dogAbout 50 percent of dog bites occur on the dog owner's property. The best way to make sure your home insurance won't get cancelled is by preventing an attack. Spaying and neutering a dog can improve its disposition, especially with male dogs.

Don't put your dog in situations where it will be threatened or teased. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, man's best friend bites more than 4.7 million people in the U.S. each year. Roughly 800,000 of those people seek medical attention. Almost half of them are children who might not be aware that their behavior is threatening to dogs.

If there's a bite

If your dog bites someone, respond right away. Restrain or confine your dog immediately. Then do whatever you can to help the victim, whether that means calling 911 or driving them to the emergency room.

Once the victim is taken care of, you might have to contact the local authorities to report the dog bite. You should then call your home insurance company, especially if there are medical costs involved. Be sure to cooperate with your insurance company. The claims adjuster will no doubt want to investigate the circumstances surrounding the incident.

Take steps to make sure a similar incident doesn't happen. That might mean building a fence around your yard or sending your dog to obedience school. When all else fails, a certified animal trainer might help.

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