Dog Bite Insurance for Massachusetts Dog Owners

September 30, 2020

insurance for dog owners in MassachusettsDog bite insurance claims are increasingly common. Nationwide, claims numbered nearly 17,800 in 2019. The average cost of a dog bite claim is increasing, too—especially as the price of medical care rises, and as juries award larger settlements to injured plaintiffs.

In 2019, the average cost of a dog bite insurance claim totaled $45,000.

What is “dog bite insurance”?

Dog bite insurance is not usually a product you would buy all by itself. Instead, dog bite risks are most often lumped together with other types of risks—i.e. bodily injury and property damage that you might cause, or otherwise be responsible for. Some examples:

  • When the pizza delivery guy slips on your icy driveway
  • When your kid hits a baseball through a neighbor’s window
  • When you overserve a house party guest, who subsequently leaves your home and gets into a car accident.

All together, this bundle of responsibility is known as your “personal liability.” You automatically receive some amount of personal liability insurance as part of your home insurance policy, or as part of a renter’s insurance policy. (More on these two options below.)

It’s important to know what your personal liability limits are (the max amount of money you could potentially receive from an insurance claim), as you may need to supplement these limits with a personal umbrella policy—especially if you own a dog.

Who needs insurance for dog bites?

All dog owners! Even those of you with pint-sized lapdogs or incredibly friendly Labs. One of our carriers recently told us that the largest dog bite claim they ever paid was caused by a beagle. Yup, that’s right.

If you own a dog, you definitely need some form of personal liability coverage—either via your MA home insurance policy or your renter’s policy. Why is this coverage so necessary, particularly in Massachusetts?

For starters, Massachusetts has a “strict liability” statute related to dog bites. This means, a plaintiff does not have to prove you were negligent. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you tried to contain your dog using reasonable measures (a leash, a harness, a traditional fence, an electrical fence, etc.). It doesn’t matter if your dog has never bitten anymore before. Sometimes, it doesn’t even matter if the bite/attack caused a serious physical injury; plaintiffs can sue dog owners for PTSD and mental anguish.

Bottom line: if a dog bite occurs, you as the owner can be held legally and financially responsible (with a very few small exceptions—e.g. unless the victim was provoking the dog, trespassing on the property, or committing some other crime).

My dog is never left unattended. Do I still need to evaluate my insurance?

Yes! Some of us proud owners tend to think our situation is different (and less risky) because we don’t leave our dogs outside unattended, or let them off leash to roam the beach, hiking trails, etc. But being responsible does not guarantee your dog will never feel threatened and lash out.

Unexpected visitors (delivery people, gas meter readers, etc.) can rile up the world’s friendliest dog. Regular guests (like visiting nurses or housekeepers with vacuums) could put a puppy on edge. Good-natured dogs sometimes forget their manners if another dog steals a tennis ball or favorite toy. Small children in your neighborhood  can also push a dog’s buttons in ways that cause a completely atypical reaction—even if Fido is sitting right next to you.

Besides bites, what other damages can dogs cause?

Although the largest and most common claims stem from bite-related injuries, dogs can cause other types of (expensive!) damage. Some examples:

  • Your dog breaks loose, and tears up a neighbor’s newly-seeded lawn/newly paved driveway.
  • Your dog jumps out your car window at a stoplight, causing a car accident.
  • Your dog is off leash at a park when he barrels over a senior citizen, causing her to slip and fall.
  • Your dog bites or kills a neighbor’s pet.

In most of these cases, you (the pet owner) could be held financially responsible. Having the right insurance coverage could protect you from costly repair bills, legal defense fees, and settlements.

Does homeowner’s insurance cover dog bites?

Probably. As noted above, your home insurance includes some level of personal liability coverage. And dog bites do fall under the category of a personal liability loss event. (Ditto for renters insurance with a dog.)

However, homeowners and renters need to inform their carrier whenever they buy or adopt a new dog. In most cases this disclosure will not affect your premium or your coverage. But depending on your carrier’s policies, the company may opt to:

  • Cancel your coverage,
  • Non-renew your policy when the term is up,
  • Raise your premium, or
  • Ask that you sign a waiver of liability (such that dog bite claims would not be covered).

If your dog happens to be on an insurance carrier’s “blacklist,” your application may be subject to further review—including a closer look at any obedience training completed and history of violence or aggression. You may be asked to supply a letter from your veterinarian, or even submit to an at-home evaluation conducted by a representative from your insurance company.

What does dog bite insurance cover?

The personal liability portion of your home or renter’s insurance can help you pay for:

  • A third party’s medical bills
  • Third party property damage
  • Your own legal defense costs
  • Lawsuit settlements, up to the limit of your policy

This coverage does NOT step in to address medical bills for you or your household members. (So if the family dog bites one of your own children, your home insurance does not apply.) Personal liability also does not cover any damage your dog causes to your own property (rugs, furniture, $700 Louboutins, etc.).

Where can I buy dog bite insurance?

For Massachusetts residents, there are four ways to secure coverage for dog bite claims:

  • Through a MA home insurance policy
  • Through a MA renter’s insurance policy
  • Through an umbrella policy (A smart option in cases where the home insurance carrier won’t cover the dog at all or can’t provide adequate coverage limits)
  • Through a canine liability policy (But we don’t recommend this route. Read why below.)

Is there such a thing as “dog bite insurance”?

Yes, but we don’t recommend running out and buying this on your own. Sometimes known as “canine liability,” “animal liability,” or “dangerous dog liability,” this type of policy is often advertised as a way to fill the gaps in your home insurance coverage. Unfortunately, that’s not always the full story.

(For example, if your dog is truly difficult to insure—because of its breed or its aggressive history—your home insurance carrier may cancel your policy anyway, regardless of you buying this additional policy.)

Before shopping for standalone canine coverage, we highly recommend speaking to a local, Massachusetts insurance agent. He or she may be able to find alternative carriers who are willing to write your home insurance and include any liability related to your dog.

Are insurance companies allowed to deny coverage for certain dog breeds?

Unfortunately, yes. Here at C&S we are all avid pet people. Most of us own dogs—including rescues of unknown or so-called “dangerous” breeds. We don’t agree that dogs can or should be judged according to their breed. They’re all unique!

Nevertheless, the following list represents most of the breeds we have seen blacklisted by some carriers:

  • Pit Bull Terriers
  • Staffordshire Terriers
  • Rottweilers
  • German Shepherds
  • Presa Canarios
  • Chows Chows
  • Doberman Pinschers
  • Akitas
  • Wolf-hybrids
  • Mastiffs
  • Cane Corsos
  • Great Danes
  • Alaskan Malamutes
  • Siberian Huskies

It bears repeating though: not all Massachusetts home insurance companies will deny coverage based on breed. As an agency with access to MANY high-quality carriers, we can often help you find and bundle coverage for your home/apartment, car, and your dog—all in one place, at a competitive rate.

Will my MA home insurance cost more money if I get a dog?

Possibly, but not likely. In most cases your agent will simply make note of your family’s new addition. The only exceptions might be if:

  • Your dog represents a blacklisted breed (Even then, some carriers will not increase your premium.)
  • Your dog has a history of aggression and/or related insurance claims (This will likely cause a premium increase.)
  • You are seeking umbrella coverage to augment your liability limits. In this case, the added coverage will definitely cost more, but only at about $35+ per month. And the extra cost is often well worth the peace of mind you gain. Want to learn more about what umbrella protection offers? Check out Do I Need Umbrella Insurance? Or give us a call at 508.339.2951.