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Home insurance and pets guide

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Nearly half of American households either have a dog or cat, amounting to nearly 180 million pets, according to the ASPCA. Whether you have a cockatoo, a German Shepherd or a ferret, you likely consider these animals family. Unfortunately, depending on what homeowners insurance you carry, your provider may not share that sentiment.

Homeowners insurance typically covers damage to your property and belongings and protects you in the event someone is injured on your property. But if your pet bites a guest in your home, are you covered? How about if your pet damages your neighbor's fence or freshly paved driveway?

Let's take a look at pets and home insurance. 

Are pets covered under homeowners insurance?

Generally, yes. Most insurance companies provide liability coverage if your pet injures someone or damages another person's property.

However, pets come with certain risks and some types of pets are considered riskier than others. Insurance companies may charge you a higher premium or deny you coverage if you own a certain breed of dog or exotic pet that they deem more likely to bite or injure people. Have a Cocker Spaniel? You may have no problem getting insurance. A 13-foot boa constrictor? Good luck finding affordable coverage.

In many cases, insurance companies may not even evaluate your pet's history before deciding whether to approve or deny coverage. Instead, they're more likely to look at claims filed for certain types of pets or breed of dog. For instance, an insurer might not cover a bite in a "risky" breed based on its reputation regardless of your dog's demeanor. 

Every policy is different, so homeowners should call their insurer beforehand to see what kinds of pets are covered, especially if you plan to welcome a new pet into your family.

We've found that the average home insurance rate increase for owning an "aggressive breed" dog is only .3%. However, some companies charge much higher rates if you own an Akita, Alaskan malamute, chow, Doberman, German shepherd, pit bull or Rottweiler. 

If you own a dog, it's a good idea to get quotes from multiple home insurance companies, so you avoid the companies with huge dog-related surcharges. 

Also, you may think you won't tell your insurer about your dog, but that can come back to haunt you. A recent Insurance.com survey of 1,000 homeowners found that 43% haven't told their insurer about having a dog. 

If your dog later bites someone and there's a disability claim, your insurer could deny the claim if you didn't report your dog. 

What is covered under homeowners insurance?

Though your homeowners insurance will provide liability coverage in the event your pet damages another person's property or bites someone, it generally doesn't cover damage to your own property or to an occupant of your home. So, if your 100-pound golden retriever gnaws your antique furniture or bites your teenager, you'll have to pay for the repairs or foot the hospital bill yourself.Pet insurance 1

Even if your dog bites your neighbor, for example, your insurance company will investigate the claim and what led to the incident. Let's say your dog was lying down in your backyard securely tied to the fence. A neighborhood kid reaches over your property line to snatch a toy away from the dog and is bitten. Your insurance company might not find you liable.

However, if it finds you liable, your liability coverage should cover any associated medical expenses, potential legal fees, lost wages and pain and suffering up to the coverage limits of your liability insurance if the victim decides to sue.

"An owner of a dog should definitely increase their liability insurance coverage. The more potentially dangerous the breed, the more coverage you will need. While slip and fall accidents on private homes happen, dog bites or attacks are just as common, if not more," says Thomas Simeone, a personal injury attorney at Washington-D.C. based firm Simeone & Miller, LLP, who has extensive experience with pets and homeowners insurance policies.

Liability policies start at $100,000, but Simeone says pet owners should get the maximum liability coverage available -- either $300,000 or $500,000 and "if that is not affordable, purchase as much as you can."

It's important to protect your assets so figure out how much you could lose if you're sued and then make sure you and your assets are properly protected. You don't want to lose your house because of a serious dog bite. 

Homeowners insurance dog exclusion list

About 4.5 million dog bites occur in the U.S. annually and 20% of those bites become infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Because dog bites are so prevalent, insurance companies do everything possible to limit their risk. Those limits include excluding certain breeds of dog or exotic pets from coverage. Though the list may vary slightly by insurance carrier, the following breeds of dog are generally considered uninsurable:

  • Akita
  • Alaskan malamute
  • Cane Corso
  • Chow Chow
  • Doberman Pinscher
  • German shepherd
  • Great Dane
  • Mastiffs
  • Pit bull terriers
  • Presa Canario
  • Rottweiler
  • Siberian Husky
  • Staffordshire Bull Terrier
  • Wolf hybrids

Insurance companies generally blacklist these breeds from coverage because they are considered "vicious" or have a higher likelihood of biting people. Your insurance company may look at historical dog bite claims or statistics to make this determination. If you own one of these breeds and your dog has never bitten anyone, you may still be denied coverage.

Pet insurance 2Olivia Kabacinski, an agent at Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance Agency, says that owners of mixed breeds may have a problem getting coverage, too.

"We have a list of breeds that are excluded. Additionally, any mutt that has a mix of one of these breeds (no matter the percentage), would be excluded, too," Kabacinski says.

In some cases, pet owners may be able to get liability insurance outside of their homeowners policy if they muzzle or behavior train their dog -- an extra stipulation that advocates say impose an unnecessary financial burden on responsible pet owners.

However, several insurance companies, including Liberty Mutual, Nationwide and Amica, don't discriminate based on breed and evaluate your dog based on its history and behavior. For dog owners who own a so-called dangerous breed, these insurance companies and others like them should be your first stop when shopping for liability insurance.

States, such as Maryland, Pennsylvania and Michigan, prevent insurance companies from denying coverage to owners of specific breeds altogether. This doesn't prevent insurance companies from charging higher premiums, though, so some dog owners may still have difficulty getting coverage.

If you're unsure if your pet is covered, the best thing to do is call your insurance provider to find out. Typically, insurance companies will ask you what kind of pet you own and what breed when you apply for coverage. Be honest about this and don't forget to contact your insurance provider if you plan to buy a pet. Not being forthright could result in cancellation of your coverage.

Unfortunately, if an insurance company denies you coverage, "there is generally no appeal process -- an insurance company is free to issue a policy, not to issue one and to set whatever premium it believes is appropriate," Simeone says. "The best thing to do is shop around to find a company that will issue a policy at the best rate."

Will homeowners insurance cover dogs with a bite history?

Several states have laws that assess a dog owner's liability if their pet bites someone. States with dog-bite statutes (California, Michigan and New Jersey) make an owner automatically liable for any property damage or injury their dog unjustifiably causes. However, states with a one-bite rule (Vermont, Texas, Maryland and Alaska, among others) will give a pet owner a pass for the first bite, but may deem him or her responsible if the victim proves the owner knew the pet was likely to cause damage or injure someone. Some states also have enacted negligence laws if an owner's carelessness leads to injury or damage.

According to the Insurance Information Institute, there were more than 17,297 dog bite claims last year, which totaled $675 million in claims. Homeowners insurance typically provides between $100,000 to $300,000 in liability coverage for dog bites, according to the institute. Homeowners are responsible for anything above this amount. Some states, like Ohio, impose minimum liability coverage requirements. If you live in the state and have a dog that has been classified as vicious, you must have at least $100,000 in dog liability insurance.

Most insurance companies will cover dog bites, but some won't. In these cases, pet owners have three options:

  • An umbrella policy that provides liability coverage for damage or injury to another individual or property not covered under your homeowners policy. A $1 million umbrella policy usually costs between $200 and $300 annually. 
  • An excess policy that provides a higher coverage limit for damages covered under your homeowners policy.
  • Dog liability insurance for breeds that are usually blacklisted.

If your dog bites someone, it doesn't automatically mean your coverage will be cancelled. Your insurance company will likely review each claim on a case-by-case basis, assess the circumstances that led to the bite and factor in state law. If your dog has an extensive bite history and your policy is up for renewal, your insurance company may decide not to renew your policy or require you to get rid of the dog before it renews your homeowners insurance.

What pets are not covered?

Exotic pets, such as tigers, ferrets, monkeys and snakes, may not be covered under your homeowners insurance. If you're not sure whether your insurance company categorizes your pet as exotic and will cover it, call them and ask for their Exotic Pet Species Index. If your policy covers exotic pets, you may have to increase your liability insurance coverage to $300,000 worth of coverage.

However, many exotic pet owners must purchase separate exotic pet insurance to cover their pets. These standalone policies often cover care for the pet and personal injury claims if it attacks someone or damages another person's property -- no different than typical liability coverage.

Exotic pet owners should understand state law, because this may impact the kind of insurance you can get -- if at all. Nineteen states ban private ownership of wild animals such as non-human primates and reptiles, 12 have a partial ban and 14 states require exotic pet owners to have a license or permit. Five states don't have license or permit requirements. If you live in a state than bans ownership of wild animals, you won't be able to obtain insurance and could be liable if your pet is involved in an incident.

Renters insurance and pets

Your renters insurance may include liability coverage for your pet, depending on your policy. However, some policies may exclude coverage for dog bites so it's necessary for renters to thoroughly review a potential policy before they sign up for insurance.Pet insurance 3

Just like liability coverage under a homeowners policy, renters insurance will provide coverage if your pet injures someone or causes damage to someone else's property. It also covers medical payments for the injured party up to your coverage limits. According to the National Association of Insurance Consumers, some insurance companies may require renters to purchase additional coverage if they have a pet, but this may vary by provider.

If you have a pet and searching for an apartment, especially in a big city, having renters insurance could make it easier to find a place to live. This will lower both your risk and your landlord's.

What kind of insurance is needed for landlords?

Only 50% of housing is pet-friendly and only 9% of landlords allow pets without restrictions on size or type, according to a survey conducted by the pet organization FIREPAW, Inc. In fact, 82% of renters surveyed said they had trouble finding an apartment that would rent to them.Pet insurance 4

This isn't surprising. Pets are an additional liability for landlords. Though a landlord's homeowners insurance may include liability coverage for pets, most landlords will require renters to carry their own insurance.

To further reduce their liability, landlords may include certain stipulations in the rental agreement about the type and number of pets allowed and exclusions for certain breeds if allowed by state law.

"By allowing only certain breeds into their complexes, landlords are already taking a step toward mitigating their risks, as well as their tenant's risks," Kabacinski says. "Landlords can establish a set of rules pet owners must follow. Examples of those rules include always having the pet on a leash when traveling throughout complex property and requiring a certificate of completion for proof of dog training courses."

It's important for landlords to check the fine print on their insurance policy to see which breeds are allowed and covered by their insurance company. Even if your renter does have insurance, allowing a breed that isn't specifically covered by your homeowners insurance could make you liable if an incident occurs or could put you at risk for cancellation of your policy.

Tips to prevent biting

Insurance exists to cover your risks, but responsible pet owners also can reduce the likelihood their pet will attack someone by taking the following precautions:

  • According to the CDC, the risk of dog bites is highest in children between the ages of 5 to 9 years old. To prevent dog bites, the CDC advises that children (and adults) not approach an unfamiliar dog, run from a dog and panic or make loud noises that could further agitate the animal.

  • Never bother or disturb a dog that is sleeping, chewing a toy or eating, since this could startle it, according to the ASPCA.

  • Avoid dogs that are barking or growling, as this may indicate aggressive behavior.

  • Before you pet a dog, get permission from the owner first.

  • Allow the dog to see or sniff you first before you pet it.

  • Pet owners should never allow children to play with a pet (especially a large one) unsupervised.

  • If you are approached by an unfamiliar dog or other pet, stay calm. Encourage the pet to go home in firm, deep voice.

  • Don't make direct eye contact with an unfamiliar dog or pet that approaches you. Don't face directly in front of the dog, as this may cause it to become more aggressive.

Having a four-legged friend can be one of the joys in life, but homeowners and renters should review their insurance policies and make sure they have the right level of liability insurance. Rover probably won't bite the neighbor's child, but you want to make sure that you're properly covered in case the unthinkable happens.