Dog bites accounted for more than $400 million in homeowers' insurance liability claims in 2010 -- roughly a third of total liability claims. Many insurance companies see owning certain breeds of dogs as a warning sign that you're going to cost them money. Owning a pit bull is a red flag for some insurers, but not all.
There's no agreement among insurers on which dogs are dangerous to their balance sheet. Each company has its own list of liability-prone dogs. Pit bulls are among the most likely breeds to turn up on your insurance company's list of bad animals, as are Rottweilers, German shepherds and Doberman pinschers. Many insurers will also panic if you buy a chow, akita, malamute or wolf-dog hybrid. Some companies also object to chihuahas or to Yorkshire terriers.
Pit bull owners object that insurers are reacting to the stereotype of their pets as savage brutes, not to the reality. Some dog-owner groups have pushed for laws banning insurers from discriminating against particular breeds. The groups recommend insurers use each dog's individual history or take into account things such as a fenced-in yard. Insurers say if they wait until a dog proves it's aggressive, it's too late to prevent claims: generalizing about breeds is the only way to protect themselves.
If your insurer learns you own a pit bull, or any breed on its blacklist, it may hike your premium to cover what it assumes is the inevitable liability payout. Worse, it may decide to drop you completely. Some owners skirt this by not telling their insurer, even if the company asks. This isn't much of a solution: if you lie about the dog and then it bites someone, you've handed your insurer grounds to refuse your liability claim.
What to Do
Don't assume you can't own a house and a pit bull too. Plenty of insurers don't care what sort of dog you own, and they take action only if your dog actually takes a bite out of your neighbors. If your insurer refuses coverage, another company may be more helpful. If you're thinking about buying a dog, check whether your insurer has a blacklist, and which breeds are on it. It's possible some will accept the dog if you sign a waiver exempting them from covering bite-related liability.
A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.