"Bad" Dogs Put Costly Bite on Insurers, Homeowners
LOS ANGELES -- Deirdre McDonnell's problem began when she and her dog Carla moved into a new house.
Forced to switch insurance companies after she purchased the home in Alaska, she was notified by one prospective carrier that while the company was happy to insure her hillside dwelling, supported in part by posts, it would not sell her coverage if Carla lived in it.
Carla, a Rottweiler-Labrador mix that McDonnell adopted from a shelter, was on the company's list of prohibited breeds.
"Her mother was a stray Rottweiler," said McDonnell, a lawyer in Juneau, Alaska. "Umialik [the insurer she contacted] refused to insure us at all, even with an animal exclusion. When I asked them how they define Rottweiler I was told, `If your dog's 1 percent Rottweiler, we won't insure you.'"
McDonnell's plight is by no means unique. Across the country, homeowners are finding it increasingly difficult to find insurance if they own dogs, especially breeds identified by insurance companies as animals likely to bite or attack people.
Each year nearly 5 million Americans, about 60 percent of them children younger than 12, are bitten by dogs, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Of those bitten, an estimated 800,000 require medical attention, and about 15 to 20 people die.
Insurance companies estimate that about $1 billion is paid out annually in liability claims, with dog bite payments averaging about $13,000 because many injuries require plastic surgery. Most of the children are bitten on the face, usually by a family pet or that of a family friend.
Choosing between home, dog
"It is big," said Stephanie Shain, director of outreach for the Humane Society of the United States. "People are having to choose between their houses and their dogs."
McDonnell, the mother of two young children, finally found a policy with Lloyd's of London that, while costly, allowed Carla to remain part of the family.
"I feel like I don't have a choice," she said. "I'm not giving up my dog."
Insurance companies argue that the enormity of the payouts forces them to exclude owners of certain types of dogs. Some estimates suggest such claims are growing at 2 percent a year.
"Insurance companies have nothing against individual dogs, or individual people," said Jeff Fuller, general counsel with the Association of California Insurance Companies. "We have to deal with statistics. I have never seen a pit bull as a guide dog for the blind."
Across the country, local laws vary widely on what breeds of dogs can be kept as pets. Last month, Denver's ban on pit bulls was erased by a new Colorado law that prohibits what Gov. Bill Owens called "doggy profiling." A proposal this year in the Chicago City Council to ban pit bulls aroused a furor and has not passed.
Some insurance companies will not insure homes where specific breeds are present. Those limits vary from company to company but usually include pit bulls and Rottweilers.
Proposed legislation in California would prohibit insurance companies from excluding specific breeds in policies. Fuller's organization is fighting the new bill.
"There is no industry standard on coverage," said Jeanne Salvatore, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute, an industry association. Because of that, she said, no reliable statistics exist on how many homeowners have been denied policies because of a dog.
Shain, of the Humane Society, said her group has seen a steady increase in the calls it receives from dog owners nationwide complaining about difficulty finding insurance.
Shelters, euthanasia an issue
The problem is compounded for animal shelters that care for a lot of dogs. Their liability extends beyond the shelter if an adopted animal becomes aggressive and injures someone.
For more than a decade, shelters have been reluctant to use euthanasia to control their animal populations and weed out potentially dangerous animals.
"About 10 or 15 years ago we started getting a lot of criticism," said Kate Pullen, director of animal sheltering issues for the Humane Society, talking about shifting public attitudes regarding euthanasia. She said shelters now conduct "behavior evaluations" of dogs before they are offered for adoption but that it is an imprecise science.
"We are seeing people keeping animals that should not be kept," Pullen said. "We have shelters that are not making the best decisions."
The Humane Society and other animal-care organizations argue that branding an entire breed of dog is not the most effective way to prevent attacks.
"The breed is not the best indicator of whether you are going to have a problem with a dog," Shain said, listing many factors that influence whether a dog is aggressive. "Is the dog spayed or neutered? Has the dog lived its life chained outside the house? Has the dog been socialized?"
Experts say most attacks come from non-neutered male dogs. Other factors that contribute to aggression in dogs include lack of training, poor health and provocation, sometimes innocently by a child.
(Chicago Tribune: registration required)