Opponents of breed restrictions say the limits are as random as weight limits. But the property owners and HOAs say insurance companies make the rules; they just follow.
Those rules have left many homeowners without coverage — and dog owners who rent without many options.
In California, where an owner is liable if a dog bites, even if the dog has never bitten before, homeowner’s or renter’s insurance is all the more important. Most bites occur in the owner’s household.
The restricted list most often include Rottweilers, German Shepherds, Akitas, Siberian Huskies, Alaskan Malamutes, Chow Chows, Doberman Pinschers, Great Danes, St. Bernards, and pit bulls. But others, from Dalmations to Labradors, make some lists — and weight limits alone can exclude all large and most medium-size dogs from housing.
Landlord Schowalter agrees with the practice of breed restrictions. “Breed is a reasonable way to choose potential traits and characteristics, and makes sense,” she says. “I think people should just not try to keep those breeds in houses, particularly rental houses.”
Insurers, however, have no one central repository for data about dog-bite injuries and related claims to refer to in creating their lists, nor are they required to break down claims payments based on dog bite or breed.
Kenneth Phillips, a lawyer who represents dog-bite victims and is considered the leading authority on the topic, says on his website, dogbitelaw.com, that the insurance industry is “engaging in the controversial and probably ineffective practice of ‘breed bans.’” Denying insurance to dog owners, he says, “is placing them at risk and infringing on their right to own dogs.”
Megan Holt, a San Diego leasing agent for an apartment advertised on Craigslist, responded to a query about breed restrictions and German Shepherds, saying, “Most apartment complexes cannot accept them due to insurance purposes.” German Shepherds, “along with many other breed types,” she says, “are on nationwide breed-restriction lists due to their aggressive nature…. Most insurance companies do not want to take their chances, even with pet references.” Holt isn’t sure what data insurers rely on, but says, “I think it is a national breed list.”
Another ad for a La Mesa duplex points to the same list used by insurers: “Pets are allowed with approval and deposit (no dogs on the dangerous-breed list please).”
But neither the Centers for Disease Control nor the American Veterinary Medical Association supports any such list. So what source have insurers turned to in profiling breeds to exclude from coverage — and therefore from housing?
Several years ago, investigators for the American Veterinary Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control conducted a joint study to assess fatal dog bites and recommend ways communities could protect citizens. That report, released in 2000, has been used to sweep breeds from rental and homeowner policies — even though the Centers for Disease Control published a statement that the study does not “identify specific breeds that are most likely to bite or kill, and thus is not appropriate for policy-making decisions related to the topic.” An AVMA task force concluded, “It is not possible to calculate a bite rate for a breed or to compare rates between breeds.” In fact, the study revealed that since 1975, “more than 30 breeds have been responsible for fatal attacks on people, including Dachshunds, a Yorkshire Terrier, and a Labrador Retriever.” In California, a child was killed by a Pomeranian in 2000. Recent studies finding small breeds the most bite-prone support the study’s claim that small dogs are also “capable of causing severe injury.”
CDC statistics show about 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year, requiring costly medical attention — but the agency stopped tracking bites by breed in 1998, partly due to problems identifying the breeds involved, as well as the fact that popular breeds are likely to be in the statistics more often only because there are more of them.
Landlord Schowalter thinks the popularity of pit bulls should be addressed by “requiring that all pit bulls be sterilized,” which, she says “would get rid of the breed.” Many breeds, she feels, have gotten “a bad rap” — but when it comes to pit bulls — “those jaws are too deadly,” she says. “Sorry, but I don’t think we need that sort of dog hanging around kids and folks. There are too many nice ones.”
San Diego–based Einhorn Insurance Agency is one of only a few insurers that issues renter, homeowner, landlord, condo, and townhome policies for all breeds. “We look at each dog on a case-by-case basis and believe it’s the environment that makes the dog who they are, not the breed,” says agent Dori Einhorn. In other words, they don’t accept all owners. “It’s more important to consider ‘bite history,“ ‘ she says. She recently declined a potential client because one of his two dogs had recently bit someone. “Because of the irresponsibility of the owner, we don’t care what kind of dog they own. They are more likely to have an incident in the future.” Einhorn says her agency will insure a home and provide liability coverage for the dogs at no extra charge. “But if a bite occurs, the homeowner must sign an exclusion which states that all dogs in that household are no longer covered.”
Another prospective client with a golden retriever formerly had a claim “well over $300,000,” she says. Hence, Einhorn asks potential clients a probing set of prequalifying questions to determine what kind of owners they are.
In 2008, dog bites represented a third of all homeowner insurance liability claims, according to the Insurance Information Institute. The number of dog-bite claims keeps rising — even though most homeowner policies now exclude “high risk” breeds from coverage.
Einhorn says that in her two years in business, and currently covering 600 households, with around 60 percent of them owning pit bulls, she has had only one bite claim…a dachshund that allegedly leaped up and bit a woman’s face.
She still questions that incident. “Have you ever seen a wiener dog jump?”
— Sheila Pell