Insurers target aggressive canines by 'profiling' certain breeds


Insurance companies, wary of high-profile dog attacks and stung by rising liability claims, are re-evaluating their policies on the ownership of select breeds.

Insurance companies, wary of high-profile dog attacks and stung by rising liability claims, are re-evaluating their policies on the ownership of select breeds.

Table 1: Breeds involved in dog bite claims on scale of 1-10 (Responses from 11 insurance companies)

"Obviously there are certain dogs considered more aggressive than other dogs," says Kevin Craiglow, spokesperson for the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America, Alexandria, Va. "Insurance is based on probability, and the reason certain dogs are deemed more aggressive is because there is a higher probability based on the fact that certain breeds have been found to be more aggressive through biting incidents.

"It's a probability of risk," he says, adding the risk is always changing.

Payouts on rise

The insurance industry is no stranger to dog bite attacks, having tracked statistics for years, via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data and independent studies. Meanwhile payouts to dog-owning customers have multiplied rapidly.

Dog attacks now represent the largest single cause of homeowner liability claims since the mid-1990s, according to the Insurance Information Institute (III). Last year homeowners insurance companies paid $310 million in dog bite liability claims, compared to 1996's $260 million.

The CDC is set to release a new report detailing numbers of emergency visits for dog-bite-related injuries. Kim Blindauer, DVM at the CDC, says that in 2000 the national estimate of visits was 347,000 (198,000 male; 150,000 female). The age group at greatest risk for attack is between 5 and 9.

Most dogs apply

Insurance companies don't hesitate to underwrite policies to cover scores of dogs.

However, once a dog has bitten or attacked, it poses an increased risk with that individual dog and, in some cases, that particular breed.

Nationwide Insurance cites owners of six breeds - Rottweilers, Dobermans, Pit Bulls, Presa Canarios, Chows and wolf hybrids - as ineligible for homeowner's coverage. The policy has been in place since 1997, although Presa Canarios were added following the January 2001 incident in San Francisco in which two mastiff-Canary Island dogs attacked a woman to death outside her apartment.

Flip side

But what about responsible dog owners, such as Mary Alice Bentley of Columbus, Ohio? She has been given an ultimatum by Nationwide to get rid of her Doberman Pinscher or the company won't renew her policy. She says her dog has never "hurt a soul," according to an April 13 article in The Columbus Dispatch.

Nationwide's list of dogs that includes Dobermans, a spokesman tells DVM Newsmagazine, was compiled on basis of reputation, dog-attack statistics and its own studies. Its policy states, "Nationwide appreciates that an individual dog may not be representative of an entire breed. However, we find it necessary to apply our standards consistently, as it is difficult, if not impossible, for us to determine the true disposition of any individual dog."

High profile influence?

Media reports have likely advanced the cause of canine profiling based on isolated but brutal attacks in San Francisco and Wisconsin.

One company, moved by recent events, MetLife Auto & Home, recently reassessed its position, taking a "very cautious approach" to writing policies for homeowners who own certain breeds, according to David Hammelstrom, spokesman. Any dog that regularly shows aggressive behavior or has a known bite history is "not an acceptable insurance risk," he explains.

Table 2: Top 10 breeds of dogs involved in human dog bite-related fatalities in the U.S. from 1979-1988 and from 1989-1998

But high profile cases, such as two incidents in Wisconsin involving a 10-year-old girl killed by a dog, and an 11-year old girl requiring reconstructive surgery after a Pit Bull attack, do not always factor into the decision for companies, such as American Family Insurance (AFI), Madison, Wis., to underwrite or deny insurance according to breed, according to Ken Muth, spokesman.

The company has denied insurance to homeowners who own specific breeds since 1994. Those outlawed breeds are Akita, Pit Bull, Chow, Rottweiler, wolf hybrid, or any mix of these. The basis for the policy is to protect policyholders, says Muth. In 2001 alone, AFI paid $4.3 million in claims.

Table 3: Action taken following bite/attack(Responses from 11 insurance companies) based on 1-10 scale

"If we would have to remove the breed exclusion, we would have to raise the rates for all policy holders, not just the dog owner, to make sure we cover the risk," Muth explains.

AFI does not view the issue on a dog-by-dog basis.

"Our agents and underwriters are not experts on animal behavior. It would be unfair to ask them to make a snap judgment on whether a particular dog does not pose the risk that the breed would indicate. Our policy is consistent across the breed," he says.

Other side of fence

State Farm, a company that lost $80 million in dog bite claims in 2001, writes policies that do not discriminate based on breed, according to Zoe Younker, spokeswoman for the agency.

In 1997 State Farm began separating claims data by dog bites. Despite the significant payouts, which are rising, the trend actually reveals less dog bites.

"What we found through the years of being advocates of dog bite prevention, there was a slight decrease in the number of dog bites. But we've noticed the price per claim has gone up," Younker says.

The claims directly correlate to soaring medical costs, she says. As a result, the company now reviews each dog case-by-case.

"Where we stand on discriminating against breeds is, yes, you can come up with a list of dogs you won't insure, but that just means people will go out and get a different breed of dog and try to breed aggressive tendencies," says Younker.

Prudential and Liberty Mutual spokespersons say the companies consider underwriting guidelines to be "proprietary information" and declined to discuss them.

Allstate's policy is the most forgiving.

"Generally speaking, Allstate does not underwrite based on any kind of breed or mere ownership of a dog," says Bill Melander, spokesman. The company has reportedly never tracked the number of dog bite claims nor money lost.

Missing the point

Dr. Kathleen Neuhoff, Indiana-based small animal veterinarian, says insurance companies should quit focusing on breed.

"When (insurance companies are) cracking down on the breeds of dogs, they're missing the main problem which is the persons who have chosen to train those dogs or breed those dogs for viciousness or violent behavior," she says.

"Unfortunately, penalizing a specific breed does not prevent those persons from training or breeding other vicious breeds, because almost any breed can - over a period of several generations of selected breeding for violent traits - be made to be a dangerous breed.

"The long-term effect could make it difficult to obtain insurance for any breed of dog," says Neuhoff.

The CDC's Blindauer, expresses similar sentiment that the insurance companies are embracing a faulty policy.

"They're (insurers) going to find they're creating problems because as time passes, different breeds will come to the top of the heap as being involved. An insurance company that is trying to blanket the entire U.S. - it's just not going to work."

No matter how they crack down, they must understand the breed is always changing, she says.

"A good example of this is 30 years ago, Dobermans were considered to be extremely aggressive and downright vicious," says Blindauer. They were bred to be guard dogs during the war and then were brought back to the U.S. and subsequently were involved in many bites. "Doberman breeders realized that sales were falling off and their dogs were getting a bad rep, they started to change their breeding tactics and bred increasingly gentle and less aggressive animals."

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