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Pit Bulls and Homeowners Insurance

My friend Holly is purchasing her first home. She has a dog, and would like to adopt another one since the new house she is buying has a lot more room than her current apartment. She is particularly interested in adopting a Pit Bull from her local shelter.

“I wanted to adopt a Pit Bull from a shelter because I think they’re cute and need to be adopted by people who can handle this type of dog,” she says. “But, the home insurance agents I talked to told me if I get a Pit Bull, German Shepherd, Husky, Chow, Akita, Doberman, Rottweiler, or a mix with any of the above, I forfeit my coverage and no one else will cover me either.”

“How is it that people can own these animals? Shelters are full of Pit Bull mixes, but can no one adopt them and still have insurance for their homes? This just seems to perpetuate the standard of over-full shelters.”

“The problem with insurance,” she adds, “is that the most affordable one for me was Liberty Mutual, and they aren’t breed neutral. And maybe it was a sales thing but when I questioned the guy about it he told me that all the insurance companies had similar policies.”

Holly lives in New Jersey–my home state too. For those of you who know me know where I stand on Pit Bulls. Friday’s post debunks 8 Pit Bull myths. It was written by Mary L. Harwelik of The Real Pit Bull, Inc.

We all can agree that Pit Bulls are often maligned–except by those who own them or who have worked for them. I’ve posted comments about this on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, and the reactions are quite emotional.

So what’s a person to do? Holly is quite compassionate, as are those of you who have rescued dogs from shelters and the streets. My friends who own pure bred American Pit Bull Terriers, Pit Bull mixes and a few of the dogs that Holly mentioned pay higher home owner insurance rates.

Talking to Insurance Agents
I spoke to several insurance agents to see what can be done. I’m starting with Kevin P. Foley of PFT&K Insurance Brokers based in Milltown, NJ.

Since I’ve heard from so many people in different parts of the country about this, the next few posts will focus on Pit Bull issues. Here’s Kevin’s take:

“I’m an Independent Agent in Central NJ. I work with two different insurance companies. Both insurance companies include in their underwriting guidelines questions about dogs. Each wants to know if there is a dog in the home and if so, what breed or mix of breeds.”

“One insurance company will not extend coverage to a homeowner that owns an aggressive breed of dog which they define in their underwriting guidelines. The definition includes Pit Bulls. This insurance company will cancel coverage at the renewal date (as opposed to the middle of the year) if you acquire an aggressive breed of dog and they find out. I recently lost a client because they got a Doberman and the company canceled.”

“The other company will, upon disclosure that you have a dog, no matter the breed, ask if it has acted aggressively or has ever bitten someone. If the answer is yes, they will decline the application. If the answer is no, the application is acceptable.”

Why Insurance Companies Ask
“A dog bite is a homeowner claim and even if it’s a minor bite (the dog nipped because it just can’t say “leave me alone, you scare me”) the insurance company is obligated to defend the homeowner if he gets sued over the bite. Lawsuits result in legal expenses that insurance companies want to avoid.”

Why Some Companies are More Restrictive
“In the case of the first insurance company, they are small and local and therefore more sensitive to claims. It could be that sometime in the past they had a very severe claim and made an underwriting decision to just avoid aggressive breeds. And when I say severe, I don’t mean the injury was severe, I mean the expense of the claim was severe. The homeowner insurance policy may have cost $500, while the claim and claim expenses could have been north of $100,000; you can see the imbalance. Also, companies don’t make decisions, people do and all it takes is for one person in charge, who doesn’t like dogs or had a bad experience with a dog to make a decision that we’re not insuring this dog.”

“The other insurance company (Travelers) is a large national insurance company. They can afford to take a larger view of the risk and accept the possibility of a bite.”

Charging More
“Do insurance companies charge more if you have an aggressive breed? I’ve never heard of charging more. If an insurance company believes a dog presents a risk of claim, they would deny the application. If they thought a Parrot presented a risk of claim, they’d deny that application too.”

What Should Pit Bull Owners Do?
“What would I do if an insurance company said no? Shop. Check with your dog owner friends and see where they got their insurance. Go on the internet and seek out quotes and follow up. I would not ask, ‘do you accept dogs?’ That will make someone think your dog is a problem. Wait for them to ask the question. If they ask, answer honestly. A dog bite after a dishonest answer could void the policy. If they don’t ask about a dog, you’re fine but request a copy of the application to keep it with your policy just in case.”

“Personally, my dog died two weeks ago after 11 years. She was a Chocolate Lab. I understand how some dog owners look upon a rejection of their dog as a rejection of a family member. Don’t take it personally, it’s just business and there are insurance companies that understand, like I do, there are no aggressive dogs, just aggressive owners.”

27 comments to Pit Bulls and Homeowners Insurance

  • “Don’t take it personally, it’s just business and there are insurance companies that understand, like I do, there are no aggressive dogs, just aggressive owners.”

    Sorry. I do, and I assure you that when I take my business elsewhere because of policies like this I truly do wish the company ill will.

    That said, Allstate has never asked me anything about dogs at all. Interesting. When I check their site they actually do say “Keep in mind that the laws about dog bites are different from state to state, and certain breeds of dogs may be excluded from coverage.”

  • Keeping_Awake

    My day job is insurance. I own a pit mix in NJ.

    Mixes–you have many options as the mix can’t be proven. Do not ever, ever, ever, ever, ever let someone write down your dog as a pit mix on an official document. Ever! (In case that wasn’t clear.)Go for Terrier mix. I have had rabies certs and the like re-written because I asked the pointed question to my vet–can you PROVE she’s a pit mix? And do you want to risk our housing on that guess? Well, do you? Yes, you will leave with ‘terrier mix’ on your records after that little conversation.

    Think about working for your Canine Good Citizen Certification. It helps!

    Ask many, many insurance carriers to rate you. Every carrier has unique actuarial tables and will view each breed differently. Some carriers rate based on breed, some only by weight of dog (yes, that 80 pound Lab or Golden could disqualify you.) So keep asking around.

    If no one will insure you:

    -ask if you can exclude the dog from your policy.

    -ask if you can purchase a rider for the dog liability.

    Both of these may well be options! But you won’t know unless you ask!

  • Thanks for an honest response. I know many owners of Pit Bull mixes that don’t tell.

  • Hi Eric,
    I agree, and it really does vary from state to state. I think Ohio has some of the toughest laws on this. I’m doing some research on this and will report back soon.
    The bottom line is just what Holly says; if the shelters have loads of Pit Bulls and Pit mixes and you can’t afford homeowners’ insurance, what do you do?”

  • I am going to write a post about Canine Good Citizen Certification. Unfortunately, a handful of insurance agents I spoke to know absolutely nothing about it, and from talking to them it seems if they don’t want to write a policy, they won’t.

  • Michele – when you research CGC Certification, it would be interesting to hear from pet owners from all different breed backgrounds. While the training and tests are easier for some breeds than others (the sporting breeds for example have an easier go of it) it would be good to hear from the small breed owners – since many toys are harder to train on the agility end and have a greater disadvantage as a result. Hence, when they get their certification it’s a big deal for them!

    My two dogs went thru the ASPCA training to be therapy dogs – and while they were about 5 and 7 at the time, and more set in their ways, they are really well behaved and had little trouble with the commands. However, the ASPCA trainer wanted to know if one of my dogs would move out of the way quickly enough if someone on a walker was coming at him – so they asked us to come back and have a “do over” for the last part of the testing. Of course, we never bothered to because the “trainer” was speaking harshly at them (her natural training tone!!) which we didn’t appreciate too well. Some dogs respond to soft commands and others prefer to train with a heavy hand; Most breeds I’ve worked with prefer to learn in an environment of positive reinforcement and reward.

    Anyhow, we scooted through the ropes and they went on to be the belle and beau of the ball at the Assisted Living facilities and Nursing homes where they were official “volunteers” including hospice situations – wearing their ASPCA bandannas proudly and cheering up all those in need. So I am not a huge believer in these certification programs. I think in many cases, the dogs are so accustomed to behaving well in social situations especially if they spend a lot of time with their owners, they don’t need a certification to prove their capabilities. I agree with you that the Insurance industry is ignorant and doesn’t want to be educated on it either. They will change if the economics force them to do so but not until then…..the nature of the beast!

  • Hi Kathy,
    As you noted, it boils down to a financial issue. What I heard about the Canine Good Citizen Certification is that some states may waive the Pit Bull insurance ban with it. I’m not sure if that is true. I’m still researching it. Some insurance agents I spoke to said absolutely not. Many pet owners have told me that they just don’t broach the situation.

  • Our homeowners insurance company (Chubb) never asked about the breed of our dogs. We used them 3 different times, as we moved from home to home, over the past few years.

    Rather than castigate the insurance companies for their practices, this sounds like an opportunity for a start up company in the homeowners with dogs insurance niche. Seth Godin champions the value of micro markets. Certainly, this is one.

  • What exactly is an “aggressive breed”? Is defining an aggressive breed also up to the decision maker at the insurance company, who happened to have a bad day when writing the policies?

    Maybe insurance companies should take a look to The American Temperament Test Society for defining “aggressive”, instead of getting their information from CNN.

  • Jim, You are right. If an insurance agent doesn’t want to insure someone, he won’t. It’s as simple as that.

  • EmilyS

    State Farm does not discriminate against any dog breed. If you talk to a SF agent who tries, you should contact the national office. But keep in mind that some states/cities require special insurance for pit bulls and I suppose it’s possible that SF wouldn’t write that policy…

  • Thanks Emily, What I’m finding is that many states and cities have different rules and that ultimately it comes down to the agent.

  • I’ve had State Farm insurance for over 20 years and they’ve been insuring my homes for 10. They’ve never asked me about my dogs. I’ve heard from some of my clients that other insurance companies wouldn’t cover them for owning certain breeds (ones listed by others).

    Professional dog trainers and knowledgeable owners know that breed bias is bogus. Since the vote in America that matters now is voting with the dollar, I recommend shopping insurance companies.

    This is a great topic Michele! Thanks for the post.

  • Margaret Duclos

    Here’s a list of insurance co’s that cover pit bulls: http://www.pbrc.net/losinghome.html

  • Keeping_Awake

    I have State Farm, too, and they were very easy about the dog. Don’t recall them asking a ton of questions as some other insurers did.(Amica, OMG, there was just not enough information to ever satisfy them!) But State Farm will go out to your property and photograph it, and may see your dog in that trip as they did mine. Luckily, it was not a problem as I had not misled them about her size or history. They saw what they expected to see.

    The laws in NJ are very favorable to anyone who ever makes a claim against your dog for any reason and very unfavorable towards the dog owner. NJ recently had a UPS man awarded a huge settlement because he injured himself running away from a non-aggressive dog, if that tells you anything. It’s a tough state for any dog owner or insurer. NJ can’t be the only state that is very adverse to dog owners. This is why a lot of it varies from one state to the next–the local tort laws have a big influence as they affect the likelihood of a suit being filed and of it being won or lost. (Car insurance and Workers Compensation also are hugely influenced by local tort laws.)

  • Posted your article over on Facebook and someone posted this link right back over to petnewsandviews.com. I think people will find it useful!

    http://petnewsandviews.com/2010/05/pit-bulls-and-homeowners-insurance/comment-page-1/#comment-14442

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  • I’ve noted that puppies bring far more joy into our lives than how our lives would be without having them. Dogs are a benefit to people.

  • Outstanding idea! Your insights are very instrumental. Thank you!