Man’s best friend may be your homeowners insurance policy’s worst enemy.

Some insurance companies are refusing to write or renew policies for homeowners who own certain breeds of dog. Dog owners are calling it a case of canine profiling.

Dog lovers say the uninsurable breed system isn’t fair or scientific since any dog can be aggressive and bite. In fact, dog owners argue, many breeds on the outlaw list are as kind, gentle and no more apt to bite than your average dog. A handful of insurers agree that it’s difficult to make blanket judgments about breeds, but they ask dog owners to pay more or cancel policies for homeowners who have dogs with a history of biting.

Insurance companies say they’re only trying to reduce costs and are only eliminating coverage for breeds known to have high bite rates. Several high-profile dog mauling cases, such as the fatal attack on a San Francisco woman by two Presa Canarios in 2001, have increased safety — and insurance — concerns.

Most of the breeds that concern the insurance industry are large canines that can inflict a lot of damage. About 25 breeds of dogs were involved in 238 fatal dog bites, according to a 20-year study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published in 2000. According to the report, pit bulls and Rottweilers were involved in more than half of the fatalities resulting from dog bites. Those two breeds have joined several others on the industry’s “bad dog” list.

Money motivation
Most consumer advocates (and some insurance industry observers) believe that money is at the root of the price hikes and coverage limits. Insurance companies are cracking down as they face rising costs.

“The cost of dog liability for insurance companies has been rising steadily for 10 years,” says Alejandra Soto, spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute, a trade group based in New York City. “It hasn’t risen dramatically, but it is continuing to rise and insurers view it as a problem.”

The Insurance Information Institute estimates that the industry paid out $317.2 million in 2005 dog bite liability claims, compared to $250 million in 1996. Combine that rise with the overall increase in costly claims and lawsuits for everything from toxic mold to natural disasters, and insurance companies are looking for ways to cut costs or boost revenue.

Blacklisting breeds
Insurance carriers see two ways to solve the canine conundrum.

The first is to refuse coverage for certain breeds. The Columbus, Ohio-based Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company’s criteria is typical. The company compiled its list of breeds to ban based on frequency of dog bites, the reputation of the breed, the insurance company’s own research and information from the CDC. Nationwide has deemed Rottweilers, Dobermans, pit bulls, Presa Canarios, Chows, wolf hybrids and dogs trained for protection or attack ineligible for homeowner’s coverage in addition to dogs with a previous bite record.

However, these dogs do have a chance to redeem themselves. In 2004, Nationwide instituted a stipulation that these dogs could potentially be covered by their homeowners insurance upon successful completion of the AKC Good Canine Citizen test.

— Updated: July 17, 2006

This is the case for all 26 states in which Nationwide operates, save two — Michigan and Maryland. In Maryland, breed-specific legislation has been beaten in court by the Maryland Insurance Department, and, in Michigan, in 2003, the practice was banned by the insurance commissioner. In these two states, dogs with a bite history and wild animals kept as pets with the potential to bite, such as giant lizards, could preclude their keepers from getting coverage. In these cases, the homeowner can still potentially get a Nationwide policy, but the insurer (and others with similar guidelines) simply will not pay any claims related to the listed dogs. A spokesperson for the company points out that every case is evaluated on an individual basis.

The outrage expressed by dog lovers forced to choose between insurance and their pups has not been lost on elected officials. Pennsylvania has passed a statute barring “breed discrimination” by insurers. Similar legislation is pending in Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, Vermont, and Wisconsin. Massachusetts was among the states considering a ban on the practice but decided to research the matter further.

An owner who is confident that his dog isn’t dangerous could opt for coverage from a company that blacklists breeds and take his chances that he’s right about the pup’s temperament. Most insurance agents, however, don’t recommend this approach.

Case-by-case coverage
Another way insurers have found to limit dog-related losses is to individually consider policies. These insurers say they haven’t reviewed their dog coverage rules and have no plans to exclude certain breeds. For example, State Farm Insurance Co. covers all dogs as long as they have no previous bite record.

Keeping Fido and your coverage
The best defense against rising rates or an outright cancellation of your homeowners policy is to do your research and consult with your current insurance company about their underwriting policies for dogs that are considered dangerous, says Madelyn Flannagan, vice president of education and research, for independent insurance agents and brokers of America, based in Alexandria, Va.

Some companies may accept pets that have been professionally trained, and others may require precautions such as fencing or other security measures. All pet owners need to maintain all records and documentation for training and installation of security systems.

In addition to a good-dog diploma, you can take a bite out of your insurance costs by neutering or spaying your pet. This often can minimize behavioral problems. Securing your pet on your premises also reduces problems.

If these moves won’t budge your insurer, Flannangan suggests you seek an independent insurance agent who represents several companies. He or she may be able to find a more accommodating home insurer

When all else fails, you may be able to purchase homeowners from one company and add dog liability coverage, at additional cost, from a firm that specializes in that type of insurance, Flannagan says. Check with your current agent for recommendations on this last-resort insurance option.

“It’s very specialized insurance and can be expensive,” says Flannagan. “But it may be available in your area, and could protect you and your pet.”

Jenny C. McCune is a contributing editor based in Montana.

— Updated: July 17, 2006