Insurance carriers’ rules about dog breeds have pulled the industry into a new twist in the national debate over racial equity.
Animal rights advocates say the assumption that particular dog breeds are inherently more dangerous is often driven by racial or class animus that associates certain kinds of dogs with certain kinds of people. They have dragged insurers into a political dog fight that forces them to defend exclusionary policies in statehouses across the United States.
The Nevada state legislature this month passed a law that will stop insurers from excluding or charging higher premiums for homeowners who own specific dog breeds, such as pit bulls, Dobermann pinschers and Rottweilers. Both chambers of the New York legislature have approved a similar measure, while a bill passed in Illinois was watered down to require only that insurers collect and report data about dog-related injury claims to the state Insurance Department.
The American Property and Casualty Insurance Association opposed the Nevada legislation, pointing out that dog bites cost the industry $853.7 million in 2020, an average of $50,245 per claim.
“Each insurer must retain the ability to provide homeowners insurance based upon its own reasoned judgment of risk factors and the related anticipated loss, including the company’s own assessment of the potential propensities of a particular animal or breed of dog to cause injury,” APCIA lobbyist Mark Sektnan said in a letter to Nevada state lawmakers.
The legislature responded by passing Senate Bill 103 by Sen. Melanie Scheible, D-Las Vegas, with a 42-32 vote in the Assembly and a 21-18 vote in the Senate. Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak signed the measure into law on June 2. It takes effect on Jan.1.
Both chambers of the New York State legislature passed a similar measure, S 4254 by Michael Gianaris, D-Queens, with a final vote on June 10. The bill had not been sent over to Gov. Mario Cuomo’s desk as of Friday.
In Illinois, SB 1672 by Senator Linda Holmes, D-Aurora, was amended four times and now only requires insurers to track dog bite claim data for two years, including the dog’s breed, gender and whether it was spayed or neutered. The bill passed both chambers of the legislature and is awaiting action by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.
Ledy VanKavage, an attorney for the Best Friends Animal Society in Utah, said in a letter of support for the Nevada dog breed bill, that a history of discriminatory underwriting practices requires state lawmakers to consider whether exclusionary policies toward specific dog breeds are another form of discrimination.
Jill Vacchina Dobbs, testifying for the Northern Nevada Society for the Prevention of Cruelty Toward Animals, wrote that “breed discrimination also reeks of housing discrimination based on race and socio-economic status because of societal generalizations about the types of humans who own blocky-headed dogs…”
The Animal Farm Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit organization that trains pit bulls rescued from animal shelters to be service dogs, supported the Nevada legislation. Executive Director Stacey Coleman said the dog-breed legislation is part of a larger effort to change people’s minds about breed-specific legislation that has the impact of discriminating against people based on the type of dog they own, regardless of whether they are responsible owners. The Animal Farm Foundation has filed lawsuits around the country challenging city ordinances that exclude specific breeds.
“We’re more about challenging stereotypes,” she said. “We want to challenge the stereotype that service work can only be done by pure-bred, purpose-bred dogs.”
Coleman said her group has no interest in regulating insurance companies. The foundation entered the debate over the Nevada legislation after a rescue group asked for its help to educate lawmakers that aggressive tendencies cannot be traced to specific breeds, she said.
The insurance industry continues to use debunked studies to support policies that exclude or charge higher rates to owners of specific breeds, Coleman said. She said those exclusions act as barriers to obtaining housing, much like insurance industry policies in the past “redlined” certain neighborhoods as especially risky without any real data to back up those assumptions.
Coleman said much of the data that was used to support those policies was gathered through dogsbite.org, an organization that collects media reports about dog attacks and advocates for protection against “dangerous breeds.” She said the group’s data has no scientific validity. Initial reports are almost always wrong. Often people misidentify the breed of dog that bit them. Traumatized patients often can’t communicate what happened. Assumptions are made.
The Animal Farm Foundation commissioned an academic study that examined medical literature that used the terms “dog bite” or “dangerous dogs.” The authors found that many of the studies used generalized terms such as “pit bull” to describe the breed of dogs, when actually the term is an imprecise descriptor that can apply to multiple breeds. The medical reports also overstated the scope of the dog bite problem by using hyperbolic language describing dog bite injuries as “attacks” and stating they are “extremely frequent.”
Many of the medical reports cite a 1998 telephone survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that asked respondents whether anyone in the household had been bitten by a dog in the past year. Based on those responses, the agency reported that 4.5 million people had been bitten.
Coleman said the CDC continues to collect data about dog bite injuries in its annual household injuries survey, but no longer asks the breed of the dog because it has learned the data is unreliable. What’s more, fewer than 20% of the people who reported dog bites to the CDC said they sought medical treatment.
But Coleman said other decades-old CDC data continues to reappear like an apparition in insurance industry testimony to state lawmakers. An April 21 letter written by insurance industry lobbyist Sektnan includes data from a CDC study on dog-attack fatalities done in the mid-1990s.
“The study found that majority of fatalities were caused by a small number of breeds,” Sektnan said.
That depends on how you look at it.
The data included in the letter shows that out of 413 dog-bite fatalities from 1980 to 1996, in 199 cases (48%) the breed was unknown. In 60 of those fatalities, (15%), the dog was identified as a pit bull.
Rottweilers were blamed for 29 deaths and German shepherds 19. The CDC report lists 14 other specific breeds and cross-breeds. Altogether the 17 breeds and cross-breeds were responsible for 52% of the fatalities.
Coleman said the data is not only old but sketchy because it is based on self-reported perceptions. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other animal rights groups also wrote to Nevada lawmakers asking them to be skeptical about any data about the aggressiveness of certain dog breeds.
“A dog’s physical appearance has very little if anything to do with a dog’s behavior,” Coleman said.
Sektnan refused to comment, referring questions to the APCIA’s public affairs office.
Some dogs don’t let go. That is the catch phrase for dogsbite.org, the name of a website and nonprofit organization run by web-page developer Colleen Lynn of Austin, Texas.
Lynn’s webpage bears photo’s of dog bite victims’ faces, some of them bearing the scars of the attacks. She says she is Stacy Coleman’s “arch rival,” and bristles at the suggestion that advocating for protection from vicious dog breeds has any connection to racial discrimination.
“You got to lose the discrimination language,” she said. “If we didn’t discriminate against breeds, we wouldn’t have dog breeds. Racism is about people.”
Lynn said she founded her small nonprofit a few months after she was attacked by a dog while jogging near her former home in Seattle. She said a pit bull broke free from its owner and lunged at her head, pushing her backward to the ground. She raised her arms in defense and the dog clamped down, crushing her forearm.
Fortunately, the dog’s owner had a homeowner’s insurance policy with $100,000 in general liability coverage. Lynn said she was treated at a nearby emergency room and took several months to heal. Later, the insurer paid its full policy limit, she said.
While recovering, Lynn started searching for information about dog attacks on the internet and learned that the city of San Francisco was considering a mandatory sterilization law because of concerns about vicious dogs. That piqued her interest in politics. She started gathering statistics and created a website to share the information.
The website claims that there were 46 dog bite fatalities in 2020, with 72% caused by pit bulls. The information was gleaned from media reports and “other criteria,” including police reports and legislative materials, the website says.
Lynn said numerous studies have shown that pit bulls and other breeds are more violent, ticking off a list academic citations. The Claims Journal did not verify their validity.
However, a search on Google/scholar shows that doctors continue to single out pit bulls as a reason for concern. A 2018 study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found that dogs identified as pit bulls were responsible for 27.2% of 14,946 dog bites reported to the Allegheny County Health Department from 2007 to 2015.
A 2019 study by Ohio State University found pit bulls, mixed breed dogs and dogs with wide, short heads weighing between 66 and 100 pounds have the highest risk of biting and cause the most damage per bite.
“The fact of the matter is simply that certain breeds of dog and certain mixed breeds are considered by the experts, in various areas of science, including law enforcement, medicine, and veterinary sciences, to pose a greater risk of biting than other breeds of dog,” said Christian John Rataj, a senior regional vice president for the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, in a letter opposing passage of the Nevada dog-breed bill.
Lynn says she is trying to protect people from animal rights activists who want to adopt a no-kill policy for all animal shelters and put dangerous animals ahead of people.
“Dog bite victims don’t have many advocates,” she said.
State Farm is one of a handful of insurance carriers that does not have any policies concerning specific dog breeds. Interestingly, when the Claims Journal asked for an expert who could talk about dog bites and dog breeds, the Insurance Information Institute recommended State Farm Brand Promotion Specialist Heather Paul.
Paul has been national coordinator for State Farm’s arson dog program for the past decade and also leads the carrier’s efforts to educate the public about dog-bite prevention. She also owns an American Staffordshire terrier and a pit bull terrier.
State Farm’s policy toward dog breeds is part of its marketing message: “It’s not the breed, it’s the dog bite.” Paul said State Farm believes the best method of preventing dog injuries is to educate the owners.
Paul said veterinarians, dog trainers and others in the “animal space” know that for too long pit bulls and other “boxy-headed” dogs have been unfairly labeled as vicious. She said for good reason, most state laws that restricted certain breeds have been repealed, as have many breed-specific city ordinances. The rest are under fire. Last year, the city of Denver repealed a pit bull ban that has been on the books for 30 years.
“If you ask veterinarians, the dogs they are most afraid of is not pit bulls, it’s Chihauhaus,” she said. “They fondly refer to them as land sharks.”
But Paul said insurers have good reason to pay close attention to known risks. Last year, State Farm paid $157 million for 3,184 dog-related injury claims.
She said 65% of homeowners have a dog in their household and it would be “problematic” for insurers if lawmakers start legislating how they manage risks.
“We don’t want laws that dictate pricing and eligibility,” she said. “It could be anything. We know that trampolines and pools have risks.”
Photo courtesy of State Farm.
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