Dog Bites and Homeowners’ Liability Insurance

| October 5, 2016 | 0 Comments

On a recent weekend, some friends and I were walking our dogs in Mission Hills. A loose pit bull approached our group, charged and bit my dog. We chased it away and called animal control. Thankfully, my dog wasn’t seriously hurt, but it got me thinking about the responsibilities of owning a pet.

Owning a Pet
Let me be clear, I think that owning a family pet is extremely rewarding. It helps to bond the family together, and can be a wonderful companion, especially when someone’s in a sour mood. Since man first domesticated wolves between 10,000 and 30,000 years ago, dogs have been helpful compatriots that have greatly contributed to human development. But owning a pet, particularly a dog, also comes with responsibilities.

First there are the basics of any pet: you have to feed it and clean up after it. This costs money, whether it’s a horse or a rabbit. There are also health care costs, which can be substantial, especially for breeds that are prone to congenital health problems. According to one estimate I read, Americans spent about $16 billion on vet care in 2015. Here are some average national expenses from this study:

Dogs & Cats
Surgical vet visits $551 & $398
Routine vet $235 & $196
Food $269 & $246
Treats $61 & $51
Kennel boarding $333 & $130
Vitamins $62 & $33
Groomer/Grooming aids $83 & $43
Toys $47 & $28

Owning a pet is a huge responsibility in time as well as money. Many pets require attention and bonding time. Many animals need to be walked and exercised. Stables and cages need to be cleaned. If you are considering a pet, you need to be carefully about choosing a pet that is suited to your home, climate and lifestyle. For example, if you work long hours away from home, you should avoid having a pet that is anxious without you and which could disturb the neighbors as a result.

Responsibilities
Most communities have rules regarding the behavior of domestic animals. For example, there are noise ordinances which can impact barking dogs, and live roosters are prohibited in many cities. In San Diego, there are limits on where dogs are allowed to roam freely off leash. Health codes may apply if there are too many pets in one location.

Which brings me to the story above. According to the Insurance Information Institute (www.iii.org), “dog bites and other dog-related injuries accounted for more than one-third of all homeowners insurance liability claim dollars paid out in 2015, costing more than $570 million.” The average cost per claim was $37,214. Before you take in a pet, you should review your homeowners’ and umbrella liability insurance to ensure that it covers any pet damage. Insurance companies may not cover some dog breeds (pit bulls, for example), so you may need to consider specialty insurance.

In the state of California, according to Nolo.com, a dog’s owner may be held civilly liable for a dog bite if: 1) the person’s injury was caused by a dog bite, and 2) the injured person was in a public place or lawfully in a private place when the bite occurred. Depending on the severity, it’s possible that criminal charges could also result. And “he’s never done that before” is rarely a legitimate defense.

When dogs bite other dogs or cause injuries without biting, the laws are less clear. But owners can still be responsible for damages (vet bills, etc.) if they fail to take reasonable precautions or fail to comply with local ordinances (like leash laws). Here are several tips from the San Diego County Department of Animal Control:
• Keep your dog in an adequately fenced enclosure which is locked to prevent unauthorized access. Do not keep your dog on a chain.
• Control your dog with a hand-held leash when away from home.
• Spay or neuter your dog. Altering will reduce your dog’s desire to roam, making confinement an easier task. Unaltered dogs are up to 3 times more likely to bite than dogs that have been spayed or neutered.
• Properly train and socialize your dog.
• Don’t play aggressive games (wrestling, tug-of-war, allowing to play-bite a person) with your dog.

The bottom line is that a pet is more than just a loving companion. It takes real effort and carries significant responsibilities.

This column is prepared by Rick Brooks, CFA®, CFP®. Brooks is director and chief investment officer with Blankinship & Foster, LLC, a wealth advisory firm specializing in comprehensive financial planning and investment management. Brooks can be reached at (858) 755-5166, or by email at brooks@bfadvisors.com. Brooks and his family live in Mission Hills.

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Category: Animals, Featured Articles

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