Dr. Dolittler

Insurance coverage a quandary for owners of certain breeds



Q. I own a sweet mutt named Maggie who weighs about 50 pounds and vaguely resembles a black German shepherd. Because of her looks, I’m having a hard time getting homeowners insurance that covers her. She’s never bitten anyone, but I worry about the neighborhood kids who sometimes use my yard as a thoroughfare in spite of my solid fencing and “Bad Dog” signs. Do you have any ideas?

It’s true. Dog owners are at greater risk of serious liability should their pet injure someone, regardless of whose “fault” it was. After all, dog bites are expensive and common. According to the Insurance Information Institute, they account for a third of all homeowners insurance liability claims, more than half of which occur on the dog owner’s property.

Dog-bite claims totaled $479 million in 2011, and that’s big money. More so when you consider that the average payout was $29,000 per claim.

In the 1980s, insurance carriers began to get a little squirrely about the issue of dog bites. Pet ownership was on the rise, “bad dogs” were in the press, human healthcare costs were skyrocketing, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report on dog bites that implicated certain breeds.

Since then, insurance carriers have offered umbrella-style homeowners policies that almost uniformly include breed-specific exclusions. The list includes pit bulls, Rottweilers, German shepherds and Dobermans, among other “scary” big dog breeds. These exclusion lists can also include breeds that might surprise you, such as bulldogs.

Most policies also pointedly exclude “all crosses of the above-mentioned breeds,” which includes your shepherd-style Maggie.

So what’s a responsible dog owner to do? For starters, every homeowner should know out what their policy does and does not cover. Call your insurance company to ask what you need to do to be sure your dog will be covered. Will a $99 mutt test help? A temperament test? Better signage?

For more information and ideas on how to get covered, check out websites like insure.com and dogbitelaw.com.

Dr. Patty Khuly has a veterinary practice in South Miami and blogs at www.dolittler.com. Send questions to khulyp@bellsouth.net, or Dr. Dolittler, Tropical Life, The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FL 33132.

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