Feb. 22 - Homeowners might want to think twice before bringing a dog into the house.

Some insurance companies will be less than thrilled to hear about the new pit bull, the Rottweiler puppy or even the energetic Dalmatian because dog bites are on the rise and they cost insurance companies millions of dollars in claims each year.

The Insurance Information Institute in Washington, D.C., reports dog bites accounted for more than one-third of all homeowners insurance liability claims paid in 2010, costing nearly $413 million.

In an effort to get a handle on the costs, some companies include "dangerous dog" clauses in their homeowners policies that effectively place certain breeds on a "blacklist," meaning the insurer won't cover a home containing those breeds.

The list of breeds varies by insurer, which is why some will be fine with the Dalmatian or the boxer while others will withhold coverage.

"If a company has had experience over a number of years with a particular dog breed that has cost them money, it's their prerogative not to have to insure something they perceive as a risk," said Loretta Worters, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute.

An analysis by the institute found the average cost of dog bite claims was $24,840 in 2009, up from $24,461 in 2008. The number of claims increased by 4.8 percent to 16,586 in 2009 from 15,823 in 2008, the most recent figures available.

Pennsylvania law recognizes the insurer's right to refuse to write a policy based on concerns over a canine resident.

But homeowners may be relieved to learn that state law does not allow an insurer to terminate an existing policy because of a dog -- unless the dog has bitten someone in the past without provocation.

"Simply getting a dog which is on an underwriter's 'list' would not be a proper reason to terminate coverage," said Rosanne Placey, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania insurance department.

The most commonly rejected breeds are pit bulls, Rottweilers, Doberman pinschers and German shepherds. Borderline breeds are supersized canines, such as the English bull mastiff and Great Dane.

Insurance companies know that not everyone will let them know when a pet joins the family.

"We don't usually get telephone calls from clients saying they've purchased a dog," said Jeff McCarthy, an agent at Harrington Insurance Agency in Woburn, Mass. "Carriers will periodically send a questionnaire asking if the homeowner has a dog."

Even then, pet owners sometimes hold back.

"A lot of people won't disclose it if they know it could be a problem," McCarthy said. "But if you did purchase a Rottweiler and didn't let us know, and you had an incident, the carrier could deny the claim."

Worters, at the Insurance Information Institute, suggested it's in the homeowners' interest to think about the potential for problems.

"It's a good idea when you buy a dog to get a policy with higher liability limits," she said. "Any dog can bite if they are frightened or scared. Children have the highest number of injuries from dog bites."

In an incident close to home, a 3-day-old baby boy in McKeesport was mauled to death last week by the family's husky. The dog - one of four living in the house - was running loose in the house while the newborn child's father was at work and its mother was upstairs in the bathroom. Police say blood was on the husky's face, and they believe the husky was the attacker.

Placey said a liability policy would not cover harm to the newborn - although some medical bills might be covered - because the child was a resident of the home and the dogs also lived there.

After any incident, she said, dogs are typically deemed "dangerous" by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, she said. That certification would be sent to the couple's insurance company, which would raise their insurance rates to reflect that they are living with dangerous animals if the dogs return to the home.

Homeowners' and renters' insurance policies typically cover liability for dog bites involving nonresidents of the home.

Most standard homeowners policies provide policyholders with anywhere from $100,000 to $300,000 in liability coverage. If the claim exceeds those limits, the dog owner is personally responsible for damages above that amount, including legal expenses.

"A liability policy also provides medical coverage in the event a dog bites a friend or neighbor," Ms.Placey said. "Homeowners can generally get $1,000 to $5,000 worth of this coverage."

Most insurance companies will insure homeowners with dogs, at least until something happens. Once a dog has bitten someone, the company could charge a higher premium, drop the homeowner's policy altogether or exclude the dog from coverage.

Some companies require dog owners to sign waivers for dog bites. Others will cover a pet only if the owner takes the dog to classes aimed at modifying its behavior.

Several insurance companies declined to comment about their pet underwriting guidelines. Pet ownership can be such an emotional issue for people that insurance companies are leery of being singled out for being unwilling to insure homes where certain dog breeds live.

The McDonald's restaurant chain recently suffered backlash from a radio ad that angered pit bull owners. The ad said, "Eating its new Chicken McBites was less risky than petting a stray pit bull ..."

Pit bull advocates said the ad was offensive and promoted stereotypes about the dogs. The ad was promptly pulled by the company.

Still, the reality is that sometimes humans and canines don't mix well.

"A big dog, though unaggressive, may playfully jump on someone and accidentally knock him or her down and cause an injury," Mr. McCarthy said.

"If you have a certificate showing that the dog has gotten obedience training, it may help. The vast majority of dog breeds fall into the no-problem category. Most breeds aren't a problem unless your particular dog has bitten people in the past."

He suggests doing research before bringing a dog into the home.

"If it's a puppy, ask your agent about the breed," Mr. McCarthy said. "If it's a rescue dog, find out of it has a biting history or was abused. It's better to find out sooner instead of perhaps having to give it up after you've become attached to it."

Tim Grant: tgrant@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1591.


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