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Man's best friend but insurers' foe

Their Assembly bill has failed, but dog lovers continue to rail against breed discrimination.

June 06, 2004|Jeff Bertolucci | Special to The Times

In the 1976 apocalyptic horror flick "The Omen," a snarling Rottweiler protects the antichrist child Damien Thorn, allowing him to unleash his devilish proclivities on a naive world. The beast is Damien's pet, and no one in the film questions the wisdom of allowing the menacing canine to roam the halls of the Thorn mansion.

Update the plot to 2004, however, and the family's insurance agent probably would have an opinion. Indeed, two of the five largest in California -- Allstate and the California State Automobile Assn. -- deny homeowner policies to owners of large-breed dogs they deem to be overly aggressive, such as the Akita, boxer, chow, Doberman pinscher, Rottweiler, pit bull, Presa Canario and wolf hybrid.

Many other insurers, including the Automobile Club of Southern California, Mercury Insurance Group, Hartford Financial Services Group, Travelers and Wawanesa Insurance, have canine blacklists as well.

The breed-discrimination policies have drawn a backlash from dog enthusiasts and others. A recent bill introduced in the California Assembly to prohibit insurers from refusing to issue a homeowner policy to owners of certain breeds failed in committee.

Both the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society of the United States believe insurers unfairly target specific breeds without taking into account an individual dog's disposition or whether its owner is a responsible caretaker. They also claim a growing number of dog owners nationwide are being denied homeowners insurance based solely on the breed of their pet.

"It's a growing trend over the past five to 10 years," said Eric Sakach, director of the Humane Society's West Coast office in Sacramento, who has received at least 50 recent letters from Californians whose homeowner insurance wasn't renewed because of their choice of dog.

However, it's difficult to estimate the number of people who, at their insurer's insistence, are surrendering their dogs to animal shelters.

"People aren't bringing in animals and saying, 'Look, I'm getting rid of it for insurance reasons,' " said Kaye Michelson, spokeswoman for Los Angeles County Animal Control, which operates six animal shelters in the county.

Lt. Dennis Carter of the Carson Animal Shelter agrees. "People don't like to admit why they're turning the dog in. They won't say, 'I'm turning this dog in because my insurance is too high.' They just say, 'I've got to get rid of my dog.' "

But at the Burbank Animal Shelter five people have brought in their dogs this year "because the insurance company said they couldn't keep them," reported Lt. Bruce Speirs.

Insurers, for the most part, are upfront about their dog policies. Mercury Insurance steers clear of pit bulls, Presa Canarios and sometimes Rottweilers. Auto Club of Southern California adds a few exotic breeds to its blacklist, including the Karelian Bear Dog, Rhodesian Ridgeback and the Russo-European Laika.

Companies look for breeds that "have demonstrated dangerous tendencies," said George Joseph, Mercury Insurance chairman and chief executive. "The pit bull, he's the worst of all. And the Presa Canario shouldn't even be legal."

The Presa Canario, a stocky, barrel-chested breed, gained national notoriety after two Canarios mauled a San Francisco woman to death in the hallway of her apartment building in January 2001.

Dog-bite claims cost the insurance industry more than $345 million in 2002, according to the Insurance Information Institute, a nonprofit trade group funded by insurers. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that, each year, 800,000 Americans seek medical attention for dog bites; half of those victims are children. About 12 Americans die each year in dog attacks. And of the 238 dog-attack fatalities in the U.S. between 1979 and 1998, more than half involved three breeds: pit-bull type, 66; Rottweiler, 39; and German shepherd, 17.

Is the dog-bite problem as serious as insurers claim?

"My hunch is that, as always with these insurance mini-crises, the truth lies somewhere in between," said Amy Bach, executive director of United Policyholders, a consumer advocacy group in San Francisco. "There probably are somewhat higher incidences of claims among breeds but not enough to justify the extreme overreaction that insurers are having."

Dog proponents believe that homeowners are being unfairly punished for the handful of horrific dog attacks that make headlines.

"Most bad dogs are the result of irresponsible owners," said Sakach of the Humane Society. "It's important to look at who's in charge of the animal."

Dog owners who wouldn't consider giving up their pet -- an animal they consider a loyal family member -- are left scrambling to find homeowner coverage when an insurer shuts them out.

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