ASPCA/HSUS campaign tackles insurance industry


The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has received hundreds of e-mails, letters and phone calls from desperate dog owners seeking solutions to what many in the animal welfare industry call "breed discrimination."

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has received hundreds of e-mails, letters and phone calls from desperate dog owners seeking solutions to what many in the animal welfare industry call "breed discrimination."

Some household name insurance companies either have canceled or refused to write homeowners' policies for individuals with certain dog breeds. While subject to change based on claims data or dog bite-related fatalities, the "usual suspect" breed list, according to industry sources, includes Pit Bulls, Rottweilers, German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers, Chow Chows, Wolf hybrids and Presa Canarios.

While insurers claim to implement such measures due to sizeable sums of money lost to claims, groups such as ASPCA argue there are alternatives.

That's why the association, along with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), is embarking on a national grassroots campaign to better educate and potentially legislate the insurance industry.

"Our goal would be to try to educate insurance companies that it is not the breed that they should be looking at - (but) all dogs bite," says Jill Buckley, ASPCA director of governmental affairs. "There should be education on other issues that definitely impact whether a dog bites, such as if it's not neutered.

Top 10 breeds of dogs and number of respective human dog bite-related fatalities

As part of its campaign, ASPCA was collecting data from an online survey that invites pet owners denied coverage or who lost policies based on their dog's breed to provide additional information.

Buckley adds, "Some insurance companies don't seem to care. They somehow have gotten it in their heads that if it's a Pit Bull or a Rottweiler or a particular breed, it's a bad dog."

Alejandra Soto, spokeswoman, Insurance Information Institute (III), disagrees. However, she acknowledges the industry isn't positioned to determine which dogs should be deemed vicious.

"It's not to say that certain breeds are more vicious or are more prone to attack, because we're certainly not dog experts or veterinarians," says Soto. "We just know that certain breeds, when they do attack, tend to cause a lot more damage when they do bite, not because they bite most often."

But, she adds, for every insurer that won't renew or write a policy including all breeds, there are always dozens willing.

"When you find that one case of someone who got denied or can't find coverage, if you realize that a large insurer in the country is offering insurance, it puts into perspective that it's not quite a crisis," Soto says.

Costly ordeal

Why many insurers have adopted breed-exclusion policies, however, is linked to the bottom line: homeowners' insurers are losing millions.

"The insurance industry has suffered some major losses over the past few years and they're looking for any way they can to not write business," says Buckley.

In 1996, prior to insurers' installment of exclusionary measures, companies paid $250 million for dog bite claims, according to the III. In 2001, the figure jumped to $310 million; and for 2002 it's expected to be in the same ballpark.

Soto says one can't discount the amount of money lost. "Insurance is a business. Every time you exclude something, you're doing it because you're losing."

More action points

While officials devoted to the ASPCA/HSUS campaign aren't denying the insurance companies' losses, they maintain there are better methods to approach the issue, such as individual analysis.

"The challenge (is) when insurers have a bite claim, they're not gathering the kind of information one would need for a thorough assessment," says Stephanie Shain, HSUS director of outreach. "I doubt they're gathering information on whether the dog was spayed or neutered or where they were kept most of the time.

"I'd like to see them look at a dog individually by someone with knowledge of dogs, not just someone eyeballing from the street a dog in a fenced-in yard that's barking wildly," she adds.

In October, HSUS met in Washington to brainstorm on ways to get the attention of the billion-dollar industry. The group is similarly collecting anecdotal stories online from pet owners who have faced difficulty in obtaining insurance.

Legislation lacking

In trend-setting California, Buckley says she's "walked the halls of Sacramento" seeking even one legislator willing to battle the breed-exclusionary positions of certain insurers.

She's come up empty.

"When you're $38 billion in debt, nobody really wants to take on the insurance industry," Buckley says.

In fact, except Pennsylvania, which has prohibited insurers' breed restrictions since 1996, no other state bans breed exclusions, according to Buckley. However, in 2003, the issue was introduced to legislative committees in Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey.

State Farm on board

ASPCA and HSUS have little worries about educating powerhouse insurers, like State Farm, which insures more than 25 percent of the country's homeowners and takes a "we'll leave things as they are" approach to breed ownership.

Excluding Ohio, which defines a Pit Bull as a "vicious dog," Kip Diggs, State Farm spokesman, says, "We don't discriminate or deny coverage based on breed of dog."

Given its breed-friendly stance, State Farm paid $78 million in claims in 2002. But, says Diggs, "That's actually a decrease from the $82 million we paid out in 2001. We hope the decrease goes back to the pet owner – the responsibility they're taking to ensure their pets are taken care of."

When asked whether State Farm would support ASPCA's campaign, Diggs says, "Anything to prevent people from becoming victims of dog bites and anything to promote responsible pet ownership is something (we) favor."

Soto adds the industry would "welcome" such educational efforts. "Anything that lowers the risk of a situation that would permit them to offer coverage is obviously of interest to any business," she says.

Industry stance

While most insurance companies with "breed lists" say they base their positions on data from claims and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics, until now, those with breed lists denied any coverage to homeowners who possessed those dogs.

That's no longer true for Nationwide, which has cited owners of six breeds - Rottweilers, Pit Bulls, Dobermans, Presa Canarios, Chows and wolf hybrids - as ineligible for homeowners' coverage since 1997, but introduced a revised policy to the public in October. The company now offers homeowner's coverage for all dog owners; however, those with certain dogs are ineligible for liability for actions specific to the disqualified dog, because of increased risk of injury or property damage.

"This change in position allows policyholders to preserve homeowners' coverage, but it retains our responsibility to adequately price our product according to the risk each customer presents," says Nationwide spokesman Kevin Craiglow says.

At MetLife, the restrictions are more stringent: Any homeowner with a dog that regularly shows aggressive behavior or has a known bite history "is not an acceptable insurance risk."

American Family Insurance also applies a breed-exclusive policy, in tact since 1994, restricting coverage for the dogs previously listed and any mix of those, excluding Presa Canarios. Insuring on a dog-by-dog basis is ineffective, says Ken Muth, company spokesman, because "our agents and underwriters aren't experts on animal behavior. It'd be unfair to ask them to make a snap judgment."

DVMs weigh in

Dr. Charles Hickey of Richmond, Va., has heard one too many stories of homeowners' insurance companies bullying his dog-owning clients over their choice of breed.

"Indiscriminate refusal to insure a home or property based on breed or size is wrong," says Hickey, whose own policy was canceled, because he owned a Doberman.

"There should be a more fair assessment rather than blanket denial based on breed," says Hickey.

Dr. Nancy Willerton, of University Hills Animal Hospital in Denver, says in the past six months she's received her first requests for letters to insurance companies from clients who were denied insurance renewal for their dogs.

Willerton recommends insurers revise their approach to breed exclusions by requiring documentation from a veterinarian. "I don't know if it's practical in a high-volume situation like insurance but (it) would probably be more fair."

She adds, "To stereotype a whole breed is not accurate. It's unfortunate."

AVMA support?

In the later stages of its campaign, ASPCA and HSUS intend to seek support of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and other veterinary groups.

While the AVMA has not committed formally to endorsing the grassroots campaign, Dr. Gail Golab, AVMA assistant director of public affairs, says they often field calls from insurers about breed-specific statistics. "We encourage various insurance companies to not use some of the statistics inappropriately for justifying breed specific approaches," she says.

Situation stabilizing

In the future, Soto of III, says while insurers aren't likely to retract their position, she expects status quo.

"Insurance is about protecting you against the what-ifs. Anyone who finds themselves in a nonrenewal situation -- it really isn't at a crisis point. In every state, insurance is findable," Soto says.

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