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Here’s What You Need To Know About Pets and Liability

As a pet owner, it’s hard to imagine your animal attacking someone. Yet even well-trained and well-mannered animals have bad days or find themselves in situations where they feel threatened. Your dog could knock someone over in a burst of excitement or perceive danger and go into full defense mode.

When we talk about pets causing injuries, we mostly hear about dog bites. And for good reason. According to the Insurance Information Institute (III), about 69 million U.S. households have dogs. And about 4.5 million people suffer dog bites every year. Most of them are children. 

Statutory strict liability and fault

In many states, you can be held strictly liable for damage and injuries caused by your pet. That means even if your pet hasn't displayed aggressive tendencies in the past and you did everything you could to control the situation, you’ll likely be held liable for what happened anyway.

In other states, provocation of the pet (like teasing, abuse or harassment) is sometimes considered on a case-by-case basis. But if you’re making the case, that means you’re already spending money on your defense. You’ll need financial help from your liability insurance.

Insuring liability means you’re insuring against the possibility of a dog bite happening. With dog bites accounting for nearly 20,000 claims each year, there’s no doubt it could happen.

Liability coverage for homeowners and renters

If you have a homeowners or renters policy, it should cover your legal defense. It should also pay for damages resulting from bodily injuries or property damage. This may include injuries and damage caused by your pet. Your homeowners liability limits should be high enough to cover the average cost of a dog bite claim, about $65,000, according to the III. But severe injuries can result in much greater damage.

  • Dog attacks could result in lawsuits, penalties, criminal convictions and jail time for the dog owner or caregiver.
  • A dog bite claim can trigger a nonrenewal with your insurance company or long-term rate increases.

If you’re a tenant and own a pet, you should have renters insurance for liability protection, even if you think you have little or no property to insure.

If you own assets in addition to your home, a personal umbrella policy can provide extended coverage over your homeowners and auto limits.

An umbrella policy will only extend coverage on your existing policies, so make sure you know what you have and what it covers.

Exclusions for restricted breeds

When it comes to liability coverage and pets, you might run into something called a “restricted breed” list. This includes certain dog breeds that are statistically more aggressive.

Some policies have endorsements that exclude liability coverage for damage or injuries caused by certain breeds. Other policies have write-ins that exclude bodily injuries and property damage arising out of direct physical contact with a dog owned by or in the care, custody or control of an insured.

Ask your insurance professional about policy exclusions or restricted breeds and be aware of any gaps in your liability coverage. You don’t want to find out that there was a list you weren’t aware of.

Special stand-alone policies

There are animal liability policies that cover bodily injuries and property damage caused by the animals listed on the policy. These policies are typically written for hard-to-insure dogs, but interest in this line of coverage is increasing as more homeowners policies impose limitations.

  • An animal liability policy can provide additional coverage for claims arising from your pet.
  • The defense costs and damages are usually managed by professionals experienced in dealing with animal claims.
  • A stand-alone animal liability policy is separate from a homeowners policy. This could protect your homeowners insurance from being dropped in case of a claim involving your pet.
  • An animal liability policy can help you fulfill legal or contractual obligations imposed by municipalities, landlords or employers.

Some policies have options such as coverage on an occurrence or claims-made basis, and higher per-occurrence and aggregate (overall) limits.

Backyard chickens

The number of backyard chicken coops is increasing. And so is the possibility that your pet will come face-to-face with their own wildness. Your neighbors may keep chickens for their eggs, but your pet may want those chickens for dinner. If your pet invades your neighbor’s chicken nest, you’re probably going to be held liable for the damages. (Or, if your pet encounters an angry rooster, the scenario could be reversed.) Regardless, check with your insurance professional if you have backyard friends, furry or feathered.

Don't own a pet directly?

Even if you don’t own a pet, consider the insurance implications of today’s pet-friendly society. Bring-your-pet to work, support animals, pet-friendly hotels and shops are places to consider along with a few others. Even if you don’t own a pet, you could still become responsible for the actions of one.

You have tenants

If you own a commercial rental property, you need to decide whether to allow pets. If you don't, you risk alienating pet owners. If you do, you have liability on your hands. If you choose to allow pets, make sure:

  • You have your own coverage in case you are found even partially liable for damage or injuries caused to or by a pet on your premises.
  • Your tenants have adequate liability insurance to cover damages or inju.ries caused by pets on your premises.
  • Your tenants’ insurance is the primary policy (first to respond).
  • Your insurance is the secondary policy (if primary limits are exhausted).

You're an employer with pet-friendly policies

If you allow your employees or customers to bring their pets onto your premises, you'll need to make sure your liability coverage is high enough to cover a one-off. Even even-tempered pets can be spooked by an unexpected noise or threatened by another animal.

You have a side gig

If you're working with pets as a gig, you need additional liability coverage. This could be a commercial general liability policy or a business owners policy. Some insurance has by-the-hour coverage so you only pay while you're on the clock. But if your side work is frequent, it might be better to get an annual policy with broader coverage tailored to you.

You babysit fur friends

A homeowners or renters policy can exclude liability coverage for pets in your care, even if you aren't the owner. If you're dog sitting for a friend and the dog attacks your neighbor, you'll likely be liable for the attack and any lawsuits that ensue. Check that the policy covers you for animal liability, even if they’re just visiting.

Advice from the professionals

Now that you know the potential liabilities, don’t despair. Your insurance pro will understand your pet is your bestie. Shake a tail and call about coverage for your fur (or feather) baby.