Everything you need to know about Dog Breeds, Dog Bites, and Your Homeowners Insurance Policy
Collectively, we have about 90 million dogs as pets in the US.[i] We tend not to think of our dogs as being ferocious, and most aren’t, but beneath their cute and furry appearance dogs are natural athletes. Dogs are agile, strong, and well-armed and severe injury can result if a dog bites a person or another animal. Puppies, while less powerful, have been known to do a number on personal property, ranging from chewing up rugs and furniture to chewing dad’s or mom’s slippers.
Does Homeowners Insurance Cover Dogs?
Like many insurance coverage topics, the answer depends on the circumstances. Most home insurance policies cover liability for dogs but damage to your personal property or your house itself usually isn’t covered. Certain types of dogs or dogs with a bite history can also lead to coverage challenges. We’ll explain each type of dog or pet risk in detail in this guide.
Does Home Insurance Cover Dog Bites?
Yes, in most cases, dog bites are covered up to the liability limits of your policy. The old cliché of dogs chasing the mailman holds true; nearly 7,000 postal employees are attacked by dogs in the US in a given year.[ii] Children are also at higher risk for dog bites than adults, and interestingly, more than half of all dog bites occur at home with a dog that is familiar to us. Fido has a limited number of ways to express his thoughts and sometimes his teeth do the talking.
Dogs don’t always see a situation in the same way that we do. Many dog owners are surprised when their dog responds aggressively to a person or another animal because they think of their dog as the furball cuddled up next to the fireplace snoring or playing fetch in the yard with the kids. The dog may be protecting its territory, its owner, or the dog may be fearful. It’s also possible that someone touched an injury or found a sore spot unknowingly. Dogs can’t articulate their feelings with words and things can escalate quickly, sometimes resulting in a bite, or several, or even dozens. The warning signs can be subtle and easily missed.
If your dog bites someone, the liability coverage on your home insurance can provide protection by paying for medical expenses or legal liability due to the dog bite. There are some exceptions, however, so it’s important to understand where coverage applies. In most cases, your homeowners insurance policy will also pay for your legal defense, if needed in a liability claim.
Your home insurance policy does not provide coverage for dogs bites if the person bitten is a member of your household. Think of liability coverage as “coverage for other people”, even though it helps protect your assets. Your medical insurance or health plan would apply if a member of your household is bitten but your home insurance policy doesn’t cover your own medical expenses.
Dog bites to people outside of your household or to other animals, like another person’s dog, can be covered by the personal liability coverage on your home insurance policy. Most home insurance policies provide a minimum of $100,000 in bodily injury liability coverage. Bodily injury claims can easily exceed this coverage limit in many cases, so it’s likely that you’ll want to choose a higher coverage limit because liability that exceeds your coverage limit must be paid out of pocket, possibly jeopardizing your home, savings, or future earnings.
Most home insurance policies also provide a coverage called medical payments to others, which can be used for smaller injuries and when there are no lawsuits involving the bite. However, the Insurance Information Institute reports the average cost of a dog bite claim at over $37,000, well above the limits for medical payments for others which are usually capped at $1,000 to $5,000.[iii]
Pet Damage in Your Own Home
Dogs and other types of pets can cause damage in other ways as well. An anxious or bored dog left at home might decide to redecorate your house, chewing through furniture, table legs, carpets, doors, or anything else your pet can sink its teeth into. A standard home insurance policy does not provide coverage for damage to your personal property or to your home itself caused by your pet. Pet ownership comes with both joys and risks. Insurers aren’t picking on dogs. They also won’t cover the damage if you were the one who damaged your home in a similar way.
However, if your dog damages something that belongs to someone else, the personal liability coverage on your home insurance policy provides protection up to your coverage limit for accidental damage to the property of others. Even if your dog fully intended to chew the neighbor’s fence and there was nothing accidental about the chewing, dogs are given a pass and the coverage stands. Don’t try this yourself, however, insurers view accidental damage differently for people than for pets. In most cases, neighbors can work out these situations in a neighborly way and pay for minor damage caused by the pet rather than make a claim.
Does owning a Dog Increase my Home Insurance Rates?
Typically, just owning a dog does not affect home insurance rates. Most dogs never bite anyone or just nip when puppies, still learning how the world works – and how their teeth work.
Many home insurers maintain what’s affectionately known to agents as a “hot dog” list, which lists breeds or types of dogs that are prohibited or restricted. Having a dog that’s on the hot dog list can lead to higher rates or denied coverage with certain carriers. Dogs with a bite history are also a consideration. Insurers can decline coverage for dogs with a bite history or decline your insurance application altogether. In these cases, you may be forced to shop for another insurer or seek out specialized liability coverage for dogs with a bite history or dogs on the hot dog list.
Which Dog Breeds are Restricted or Prohibited?
The dog breeds and types that are restricted or prohibited by insurers can vary from one home insurance provider to the next but these hot dog lists are often very similar.
One well-known insurer will not insure homes with the following types of dogs:
“Akita, American Bulldog, Chow, Doberman, Mastiff (All), Pit Bull (All), Presa Canario, Rottweiler, Wolf, any mix of the above or any dog showing aggressive tendencies or prior bite history.”
Another well-known insurer expands their list to include German Shepherds and purebred or hybrid canines with 25% or more of their ancestry traceable to coyotes or wolves. As with other insurers, home insurance policies cannot be written for “risks that have dogs with a vicious propensity, prior bite and/or aggression issues”, according to their underwriting guidelines.
Uninsurable breeds vary from one insurer to the next, but restricted or prohibited breeds might include the following breeds:
- Pit Bull Terriers
- Staffordshire Terriers
- German Shepherds
- Presa Canarios
- Doberman Pinschers
- Cane Corsos
- Great Danes
- Alaskan Malamutes
- Siberian Huskies
- Rhodesian Ridgebacks
- Saint Bernards
Just as importantly, insurers are looking at bite history, regardless of breed, as well as aggressive behavior in dogs, again without regard to breed or type.
It’s often difficult to keep your dog completely isolated from visitors or to prevent your dog from digging under the fence to find freedom, which is part of the reason these lists exist. That these breeds find themselves on hot dog lists for home insurers speaks to the power or general disposition of these breeds.
The vast majority of dog bites (81%) cause no injuries or injuries too slight to require medical attention, like bruises or minor scrapes.[iv] Less than 1% of dog bites require hospitalization after initial treatment, but the range of injuries that do require medical treatment or hospitalization is more likely caused by larger dogs, stronger dogs, and more aggressive dogs. Smaller breeds, like Chihuahuas and Lhasa Apsos are among the most frequent “biters”, but these breeds are less likely to cause serious injuries.
Dog bites account for a third of all home insurance liability claim dollars and New York high is on the list with the an average claim amount of nearly $57,000, which is $20,000 higher than the national average.
Always Disclose Pets and Breeds to Your Agent
One of the many advantages of working with an independent agent is that your agent can find you the proper coverage and isn’t limited to one insurer. If one insurer can’t insure the risk, your agent may be able to place the policy with a different insurer. Agents who only represent one insurer often don’t have the flexibility to search for another insurance provider if your dog is on a restricted or prohibited list or if your dog has a bite history or a history of aggression.
Fearing that there may be coverage problems, homeowners have sometimes fibbed about their dog breed or whether they have a dog at all. This inaccuracy can create a new type of problem.
Let’s say you have a dog that’s on the insurers list of prohibited breeds. For whatever reason, the dog is not disclosed during the insurance application process. Insurers use the information on your application as well as information from shared insurance databases to determine if a risk is insurable and if so, how much the premium should be. In this case, if the insurer had known about the dog, they would not have approved the policy. In the insurance world, this is known as “material representation” and it’s cause for the insurer to cancel your policy. What’s even worse is that the insurer can void your policy, which means they can make it like the policy never existed due to the misrepresentation.
Now imagine you have a home insurance claim, a big one, like a fire. Thankfully, everyone escaped safely, and “Fluffy”, your 230-pound Bull Mastiff is safe as well. During a conversation with the insurance adjuster, the topic turns to Fluffy, who is hard not to notice as he watches the adjuster. As the adjuster learns that you had Fluffy when the policy was written, there’s evidence of material misrepresentation and the insurer can void the policy, denying payment for your fire claim.
Insurers also do routine inspections to be sure the property is in good shape. You may not even be aware of their visits because the inspections are often done from the outside of your home. If an undisclosed risk, like Fluffy the Mastiff, is found at your home, you can face policy cancellation. After a policy is cancelled or voided, it can be difficult to get home insurance coverage elsewhere at an affordable rate.
Consider an Animal Liability Policy
An animal liability policy goes by several names depending on the insurer. It might be called a canine liability policy or a pet liability policy, but its function is similar regardless of name. These policies are standalone policies designed to cover damage or injuries caused by your dog. Having a canine liability policy in place can make your home insurable whereas without a separate policy you’re likely to find similar roadblocks with most home insurance providers if you own one of the more commonly prohibited breeds or if your dog has a bite history or aggression history.
Putting Safety First
Regardless of breed, misunderstandings between dogs and people or dogs and other dogs can happen easily and often without much warning. If your dog does bite someone, in addition to the injuries sustained and the insurance challenges ahead, there can be legal ramifications. Insurers can also require that the dog be removed from the property. For the safety of others and for your dog’s safety, monitor interactions with others closely, consider fencing your yard, and keep your furry friend leashed when out for walks.
If you have questions about coverage for your dog, just reach out to your agent. There’s usually a way to cover most risks, but your agent needs to know what the risks are to help you find a solution.