New Mexico's Pet Resource FALL 2003


COVER STORY

WHY INSURANCE COMPANIES BITE BACK

By Greta Gardner

So you want to own a Rottweiler. Could your homeowners or renters insurance be cancelled simply because of the breed of your family dog? Absolutely, and it happens more often than you’d think as the number of dog bite incidents in this country rises.

Statistics show that there are as many as 800,000 dog bites treated every year in the United States by medical professionals. The number of unreported and untreated dog bites is estimated to be as high as 3.9 million a year. Approximately 12 people die each year from dog attacks. Children account for more than 60 percent of all dog bite victims. Other common victims include the elderly and people such as mail carriers, meter readers, and those whose jobs require visits to people’s homes.

Your homeowners or renters insurance policy provides liability coverage for your household if a third party is injured on your property or by the actions of a household member. Your dog is a member of your household, and you can be held liable for your dog’s actions. After years of gathering data, and with the alarming increase of dog bites and dog attacks in the United States, many insurance companies now will not issue policies or will cancel existing policies if there are certain breeds of dogs in the household. And they do not have to be purebreds. Your policy can be in jeopardy if your mixed breed dog’s background contains certain breeds.

Statistically, German Shepherd Dogs and Chow Chows are the top biters in this country. Both breeds were originally developed as security dogs, so the urge to protect their people and property runs deep in their bloodlines. However, the breeds that insurance companies most often refuse coverage for are American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, the mixed breeds commonly called pit bulls and Rottweilers. These dog breeds have received a great deal of bad press in recent years due to some particularly violent attacks that have garnered national attention. Because of their powerful jaws, these dogs can cause severe injury. Other breeds, such as Cocker Spaniels or Australian Cattle Dogs, are known to be fear biters or “nippers”. When they bite someone, the victim’s injuries are significantly less lethal.

Most people, including those in the insurance industry, agree that pit bull breeds and Rottweilers are not bad dogs and that their propensity to bite is not determined by their breed. It is the dogs’ owners who determine their dogs’ personality traits and behavior. Unfortunately, powerful, so-called attack dogs are favored by those who want an aggressive protector—either as a status symbol or as a show of power and masculinity. These kinds of people chain their dogs in the yard and give them little or no attention or abuse them to make them aggressive. Because so many of the people who want to own these breeds of dogs encourage aggression in them, responsible owners suffer when insurance carriers refuse coverage.

And it’s not just insurance companies who are taking action against these breeds. A growing number of municipalities and counties across the country are banning the ownership of certain breeds. Santa Monica, California and Des Moines, Iowa, are two examples. The breeds most often banned are pit bulls, Rottweilers, Doberman Pinschers, Chow Chows, and Shar Peis. The state of Ohio has declared pit bulls dangerous and vicious. In New Mexico, Kirtland Air Force Base banned any of the pit bull breeds and Rottweilers from their base housing earlier this year.

A personal story may help to illustrate why insurance companies are saying no to certain dog breeds. I work for an insurer. My job is to survey commercial properties to determine if there are any property or liability hazards associated with our insured locations. Over the years, I have encountered many protective dogs, but I have never been attacked—until recently. I was visiting an apartment building with a large wood fenced area with “Beware of Dog” signs plastered all over it. The gate to the fenced area, however, was open. As I was looking at the building, I heard a dog on a chain start to run. A very upset pit bull emerged from the fenced area through the open gate and came straight toward me. I was knocked to the ground and bit in the butt. Luckily, the dog reached the end of his chain and let go of me and I managed to roll out of the way of what was now an angry, snarling dog.

Property owners be advised: a “Beware of Dog” sign does not absolve you of liability for injury caused by your dog. The courts can find you liable for the injuries your dog inflicts based on the individual circumstances of the bite—even if someone trespasses on your property. The sign serves merely as a warning to visitors entering your property. New Mexico is a “one bite” state. You are strictly liable for any dog bites after the first occurrence. You can also be held liable on the first dog bite if the courts find you were negligent in some manner.

My employer cancelled the apartment’s policy after determining that the dog belonged to the owner of the apartments, had bitten someone before, and attacked an animal control officer less than a week after my experience. There were young children living in this apartment building. I had a lengthy discussion with the animal control officer who was attacked. I was given the option of having the dog destroyed and imposing a $1,000 fine on the owner if I testified in court. The officer and I mutually agreed that he would monitor the dog on a daily basis to verify that the gate to the fenced enclosure was kept closed. If the officer found the gate open, he would press charges himself as he had also been attacked.

Several acquaintances of mine found my decision shocking. I reasoned that the problem is not the dog, but the owner. If the dog were euthanized, the owner would probably get another dog and mistreat it so that it would become vicious — and the problem would go on. Because the owner’s insurance policy was cancelled – and no other insurer will write a policy with a known aggressive dog on the premises – the apartment owner will have to obtain insurance through the FAIR plan, a state insurance plan for those who cannot obtain insurance any other way. The FAIR plan insurance premiums are far more expensive, so the owner will be paying more in the next few years than the court’s $1,000 fine. With that monetary penalty and if Animal Control continues to monitor the apartment building, I hope that the chance of a future dog bite has been reduced. To date, the gate on the fenced enclosure has remained closed.

If you want a pit bull or a Rottweiler, you can still get insurance. Some companies will issue a policy with a specific exclusion against injury caused by your dog. There are also a few carriers who still do not consider your dog’s breed when underwriting your insurance application. But these companies still ask the breed of your dog because they continue to keep statistics on dog bite claims. The most important factors in underwriting your application for insurance are whether your dog has a prior bite history and if your dog has been trained for attack or guard purposes. Occasional property inspections might also reveal a vicious or aggressive dog of any breed, which can result in the cancellation of your insurance policy. Finally, all insurance carriers deny coverage or cancel policies when your dog is a wolf hybrid or a dingo mix. Wolves and dingoes are wild creatures and have not been crossbred for enough generations to be considered domesticated animals.

Always remember that any animal will defend itself when sufficiently provoked—even humans. Any dog is capable of biting. If your dog does bite someone, take the following actions:

· Restrain your dog and separate the dog from the situation.
· Wash wounds with soap and water and seek medical attention when necessary.
· Provide the dog’s vaccination information and history to the victim.
· Notify your insurance company.
· Consult your veterinarian or an animal behaviorist for advice on how to prevent future problems.

People can take legal action against you for even a minor dog bite. Most insurance carriers will review the facts of the case to determine if the dog was provoked or justified in attacking. Your policy can be cancelled or not renewed if it is determined that you failed to restrain your dog or if the bite was unprovoked.

Public safety is the priority. Until people care for their pets responsibly and statistics show a decrease in dog bites, insurance companies, states, and local communities alike will continue to prohibit certain breeds. You can make a difference by properly socializing your dog.

DOG BITE PREVENTION TIPS
* Never tease or chase a dog.
* Do not pull on a dog’s tail or ears.
* Do not take a dog’s food or toy away.
* Always ask the owner’s permission before petting a strange dog.
* Never leave a baby or small child alone with a dog.
* Always leash walk your dog.
* Never approach a growling, barking, or nervous dog.
* Use extra caution around a mother dog and her puppies.
* Do not startle or make loud noises around a sleeping dog.
* Seek professional help for a dog that is hurt. Dogs in pain do not think clearly and may lash out.
* Never come between two fighting dogs.
* Do not put your face close to a dog.
* Spay or neuter your dog!! Neutered dogs are 3 times less likely to bite someone.
* Use slow and careful movements around a strange dog. Let the dog come to you and smell you first.
* Do not teach your dog that biting is acceptable play behavior.
* Socialize your pet!! Spend time with your dog and take it places with you.
* Provide obedience training for your dog.
* Keep your dog healthy and up to date on vaccines. A sick dog is more likely to bite.
* Teach your children to be responsible and respectful of the family dog.
* Do not put your dog in a situation where it feels threatened or teased.
* Take extra precautions around elderly dogs. They have less tolerance for children and loud noises.

If a dog does attack you—do NOT run. Stand still or back away slowly. If you are knocked to the ground, protect your face with your hands and avoid eye contact with the dog.

Greta Gardner works for a national insurance company and shares her life with two wonderfully social dogs and two homebody cats.


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