Dog bite claims on the rise

Mark Henricks

The number of dog bite claims on homeowner's insurance policies rose 3 percent from 2010 to 2011 to nearly 16,300. Dog bites are the single largest source of homeowner's liability claims, accounting for one-third of cases.

Greater costs for medical treatment of bites may be behind the higher number of claims, according to the Insurance Information Institute. The institute estimates that insurers paid nearly $479 million for dog bite claims in 2011, up from $413 million the year before.

Residents of Illinois were the most likely to be bitten by dogs last year, according to a report on dog bite claims by State Farm. The insurance company says it paid 309 Illinois homeowner's insurance claims for dog bite-related injuries during 2011. This equals 2.4 claims per 100,000 residents -- three times the national rate.

Other states with high rates include Minnesota, ranked second with a rate of 2.2, and Indiana, ranked third at 2.16 dog bite claims per 100,000 residents. Here are the top 10 states for dog bite claims, based State Farm's count of total claims per state and U.S. Census Bureau population estimates:



Dog bites


  1. Illinois




  1. Minnesota




  1. Indiana




  1. Ohio




  1. Michigan




  1. Pennsylvania




  1. California




  1. Texas




  1. Florida




  1. New York




Why the rise in dog bite claims?

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention CDC), about 4.5 million people are bitten or attacked by dogs each year. About one in five receives medical attention for injuries; in a typical year, dog bites result in about 16 deaths. Only a small percentage of the people who are bitten file insurance claims, despite the fact that many homeowners' policies cover dog bites, and half of all bites occur on the dog owners' property.

Most dog bites don't result in claims because most injuries are minor, says Paul Cannon, an attorney who handles dog bite cases for Houston law firm Simmons & Fletcher. Also, bitten people often are family members, who are reluctant to make insurance claims, he says.

However, the increase in dog bite claims doesn't necessarily mean dogs are biting more people. The most likely explanation is that more people who have been bitten are filing claims because the medical costs of treating bites are rising. Claims costs also may climb as more victims decide to undergo expensive plastic and reconstructive surgery.

Some insurance companies have tried to reduce the frequency and cost of dog bite claims by targeting certain types of dogs. For instance, American Family Insurance won't issue a new homeowner's policy to someone who owns a dog that is a pure- or mixed-breed Akita, pit bull, Chow, Rottweiler or wolf. American Family spokeswoman Janet Masters says these breeds are most likely to cause serious injury.

"If we learn about the presence of a dog after the policy has been issued, the policy will be set up to non-renew if the policyholder continues to own the dog," Masters says.

The insurer expects policyholders to tell them on applications about animals in the household, and also to let the insurer know whether an animal injures someone. However, unless a claim is filed, the insurer may have no other way to learn of a bite than through policyholder disclosure, Masters says.

"If we were to sell policies to people who owned these breeds, we would have to raise rates for all our policyholders, not just the dog owner, to make sure we had adequate reserves to cover the risk," Masters says. "That's not fair to the vast majority of our policyholders."

Many local governments have passed laws declaring certain breeds "vicious." Miami-Dade County, Florida, prohibits ownership of pit bulls and related breeds. If you are caught with a forbidden breed, you'll be slapped with a $500 fine. Boston requires pit bull owners to be over age 18, fill out an application certifying the dog is neutered or spayed and post "Beware of Dog" signs.

However, breed targeting is controversial. State Farm spokeswoman Patti Kelly says her company does not refuse to cover any homeowner purely because of the breed of his or her dog. The insurance company's stance is supported by organizations such as The Humane Society of the United States.

"There's really no evidence that any of the breed-specific legislation that's been enacted has reduced dog bites in a community," says Cory Smith, director of the Humane Society's Pets For Life initiative, which provides veterinary and animal welfare resources for communities that lack them.

Both State Farm and American Family may refuse homeowner's coverage if a dog has a history of aggressive behavior, however. "We will not sell a new policy to customers who own a trained guard dog or attack dog, or a dog that has vicious tendencies that require the owner to remove or restrain it when people are present," Masters says.

Insurers and animal advocates recommend that owners and pets undergo obedience training and socialization classes, and that pets with aggressive tendencies be restrained when postal workers or other strangers are around. Children, in particular, need to be taught to approach animals with care, since about half of dog bite victims are kids. "Prevention and training people to be successful dog owners is the best use of our resources," Smith says.

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