Shushu, a 9-year-old spayed Dalmatian, is a favorite playmate for the children in her Randolph, Mass., neighborhood and a regular blood donor at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
"She's a lovable dog," said her owner, Barbara Mersal, an MSPCA employee. "I've never had a problem."
So, Mersal was shocked when she received a letter from her homeowners insurance company informing her she was being dropped because of Shushu. The dog, the company argued, was a breed that would no longer be covered. Mersal's decade-long relationship with the company would end because of a beloved dog.
Mersal is not alone. Many insurance companies are looking to cut costs by excluding owners of large breed dogs from homeowners insurance plans. Breeds that have been targeted include pit bull-type dogs, Rottweilers, Doberman Pinschers, Chow Chows, Akitas, Siberian Huskies, and German Shepherd Dogs, and in some cases, even Dalmatians and Boxers.
Insurance companies defend the breed-specific measures, saying that dog bite injuries account for more than one-third of all liability claims against homeowners insurance. These claims cost the industry $310 million in 2001, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
"It's not an antidog policy. It's business," said Alejandra Soto, a spokesperson for the institute.
Highly publicized cases like that that of two California lawyers whose Presa Canarios mauled a neighbor to death have further raised concerns among insurers about dog bite liability, according to the institute.
Dog bites are recognized as a public health threat by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the AVMA, and physicians' associations. Each year, an estimated 4.7 million people are bitten. As many as 800,000 dog bite victims—most of them children—require medical attention. About a dozen people are killed each year by dogs, according to the CDC.
Though they agree that dog bite injuries are a serious problem, the AVMA, the American Kennel Club, and animal welfare organizations argue that breed discrimination is not an appropriate way of addressing the problem. Dr. Bonnie V. Beaver, a member of the AVMA Executive Board and a certified veterinary behaviorist, said that breed discrimination is not scientifically supported.
"The data available (on dog bites) are not accurate and are very incomplete," she said.
Dr. Beaver further explained that the majority of the dogs in the United States are "good canine citizens."
"There are many good dogs out there being discriminated against," she said.
According to official statements from the AVMA, all dogs—regardless of size or breed—can bite if provoked. The key to reducing dog bites is responsible pet ownership.
Understanding the policies
Insurance companies are taking a variety of steps to avoid dog bite injury claims. Some will not cover specific breeds of dogs, or individual dogs that have a history of biting. Others require dog owners to sign waivers and accept full responsibility for any dog bites. A few are evaluating dogs on a case-by-case basis and require letters from veterinarians, dog obedience certificates, or a home visit by an insurance agent.
To develop lists of dog breeds they won't cover, insurance companies are looking at previous dog bite injury claims they've had to pay. For example, if an insurance company previously had three claims in which a pit bull-type dog attacked a person and they had to pay $300,000 on each, they may chose not to cover pit bull-type dogs in the future. They are focusing on previous bites that caused serious damage, and in most cases, it's large breeds that are able to do the most damage, Soto said.
In an effort to prove that her dog was not a threat, Mersal offered to provide letters from neighbors, but the insurance company would not consider them.
"They wouldn't even listen to me," she said.
Few insurance companies are evaluating dogs on a case-by-case basis, because it's an expensive and time-consuming process, Soto said.
"It's very difficult to do, in terms of manpower," she said.
The AVMA warns veterinarians to be careful about supplying behavioral evaluations of dogs for insurance purposes.
"It's risky for veterinarians," said Dr. Beaver, explaining that there are many situations in which a dog may behave aggressively, and temperament tests can't rule out the possibility of aggression. "You don't have temperament tests that can identify all possibilities."
Dr. Beaver recommended that veterinarians talk to clients who are encountering breed discrimination about the AVMA's stance and recommend that they work with breed organizations to discourage insurance companies from basing their policies on breeds.
State veterinary associations, the AKC,who along the Humane Society of the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and other animal welfare organizations are actively are lobbying state legislatures to pass laws against breed discrimination. At least two states—have such laws.
The AKC offers the Canine Good Citizen program, a dog training certification program that emphasizes responsible ownership and basic good manners for dogs, as an option for owners who need to provide evidence to insurance companies that they are responsible owners.
"We've found some insurance agents who feel that owners that go through this program are less likely to be a problem," said Mary Burch, PhD, the director of the AKC's Canine Good Citizen program. Information about the program is available at www.akc.org/love/cgc/index.cfm.
Seventeen states and communities across the country endorse the program as a way to make communities safer and reduce dog bites. Dogs in the program are introduced to a variety of situations and must behave appropriately around other dogs and humans to be certified. Dr. Burch recommends that veterinarians encourage their clients to seek training for their dogs through the Canine Good Citizen program or similar training programs.
"Veterinarians are really the first professionals to have contact with these animals," Dr. Burch said. She added that some veterinarians who have promoted Canine Good Citizen programs or offered such programs through their offices have noted an added bonus: dogs that have completed the program behave better and are easier to work with in the clinic.
For owners, shopping around for policies and responsible ownership are keys to finding home insurance, according to the groups tracking the trend.
Soto said dog owners should keep up to date on their insurance companies' policies on dogs and update their coverage, and that prospective dog owners should check with their insurance company when they are selecting a dog.
In Massachusetts, homeowners who are denied coverage can apply for coverage through the state's Fair Access to Insurance Requirements plan. Information is available at www.mpiua.org.
Shushu's owner, Mersal, was able to get home insurance through another company. But she advises other dog owners to be aware of their insurance company's policies and to refuse to do business with companies who discriminate against certain breeds.