By Brian Sodergren
The insurance industry appears to have dog caregivers on a short leash, or at least those owners who prefer large, powerful breeds such as rottweilers, German shepherds, Doberman pinschers, Akitas, pit bulls, or chows.
Insurers are re-evaluating coverages for homeowners who share their living spaces with such breeds. To the industry, the numbers are as sobering as a dog howling at midnight: One-third of all liability claims against homeowners stem from dog bites, a statistic that the insurance industry claims have forced it to pay out $310 million annually.
For many insurance companies, these numbers add up to an outright ban on certain breeds. While such a step may have been considered extreme at one time, the industry says it is now just a consequence of the society we live in.
But the consequences of breed bans stretch far beyond denied coverage and the dollars and cents of the insurance industry. The bans are also having a chilling effect on dog ownership in the United States, and are forcing shelters to deal with those who choose their insurance policy over their dog.
At the Humane Society of Atchison, Kansas, the number of rottweilers relinquished because of insurance coverage has jumped 40% within the past year.
“For a lot of people—myself, I have a Rottie—these aren’t just dogs,” says Penny Virts-Bell, the executive director of the shelter. “They are an important part of the family. It’s like giving up your child.”
Virts-Bell said that none of the relinquished dogs were aggressive or vicious, and the people gave up their animals only as a last resort.
“They tried to find homes for the animals,” she says. “We tried to go up against the insurance company on their behalf, but ran into a brick wall.”
With 3-4 million pets euthanized in shelters each year, the insurance industry breed bans are only adding to the problem. But insurance officials blame breed bans on the latest trends: They say more dog-bite cases are going to court, and juries are awarding larger sums to victims.
“Obviously people have had dogs and insurance for years and years,” says Alejandra Soto of the Insurance Information Institute (III). “We don’t know why, but there have been more cases of dogs biting people in the past five to ten years, with these cases going to trial. Why are they ending up in court more than they used to? We don’t know.”
According to the III, there were 4.7 million dog bites reported to authorities in 1999, up from 4.5 million in 1996; most victims were children. The $310 million paid out in 2001 for dog-bite liability claims is also an increase from the $250 million paid out five years ago.
Soto says that every time a dog-bite case is tried, the risk factor for insurance companies changes, and the industry has to make judgments on those risk factors. Some have just decided that people with certain breeds are too much of a risk. However, Kenneth Phillips, a lawyer in California who has handled dog-bite cases for more than a decade and who runs the dogbitelaw.com website (see link below), says that the insurance industry is wrong about the increase of cases being tried over the years.
“I don’t think there’s been any change at all,” Phillips says.
As for the breed bans, Phillips agrees with The HSUS that they’re wrongheaded, and create more problems for dog owners and the community.
“There’s no way to really identify all the breeds that could pose a danger,” he says. “The ban on breeds is a very simplistic and knee-jerk reaction to a much more complicated problem. A breed ban only takes care of 10% of the problem. The other 90%—training, socialization, health of dog, the victim’s behavior—a breed ban doesn’t address those issues.”
The alternative, say opponents of breed bans, is to look at the dog, not the breed.
“The insurance companies are missing the boat,” says Stephanie Shain, Director of Companion Animal Outreach for The HSUS. “Any dog can bite. The insurance industry needs to look at this issue on a case-by-case basis, and make judgments about a particular dog, not an entire breed. If the insurance industry is ready to properly evaluate dogs, which with 68 million dogs kept in the U.S. will also be a good thing for their business, we are ready and waiting to help.”
Soto counters that the case-by-case model may not be realistically feasible for insurance companies.
The fact is, dogs bite for many reasons. They may bite out of fear or to protect their territory or to establish dominance over a person. Dogs may also bite because some owners mistakenly teach their canines that biting is an acceptable form of play. What’s more, every year a number of newborn infants die when bitten by dogs who may see them as “prey” or who may harm them unintentionally during unsupervised interactions. Because of the variety of reasons behind dog bites, responsible dog care—including proper socialization, supervision, humane training, sterilization, and safe confinement—is necessary to prevent biting.
Unfortunately, no matter why a dog bites, people on the short end of insurance company breed bans don’t have much recourse.
Soto says that it may be possible to provide documentation to an insurance company, proving that the dog is not a biter, but even that may not always sway an insurer that ban certain breeds no matter what. For people dealing with those companies, Soto says the only thing to do is shop around, and let their insurance company know they are doing so and why.
Another option for people is to complete The HSUS’s insurance incident form, on which they can document their problem in an easy-and-clear format while also making The HSUS aware of their problem.
“Above all,” Soto says, “don’t panic. The best thing to do is to be aware of the issue if you’re thinking about getting a dog. And if you have a dog, be a responsible owner. Take all the preventive measures you can.”
Reprinted with permission from The Humane Society of the United States website at www.hsus.org.
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