Insurers target aggressive canines by 'profiling' certain breeds

Insurers target aggressive canines by 'profiling' certain breeds

Industry says more than a billion dollars lost in last five years due to dog attacks
Jun 01, 2002

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

"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.

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
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.

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.