Pets and renters insurance: Why you need it

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If you rent your home and own a pet that injures someone or damages their property, the cost to you could be significant. Insurers paid nearly $800 million last year in dog bite claims, according to the Insurance Information Institute, with the average payout being $44,760.

Naturally, when households take in more animals, the risk of damage and injury claims rises. Across the country, Americans have been flocking to pet shelters and rescue organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Shelters are placing dogs and cats in permanent homes and foster homes at rates they’ve not seen before.

In South Florida, for example, Palm Beach County Animal Care and Control emptied one of its dog kennels for the first time in its history. In Colorado, the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak region reported clearing out its dog kennels and cat adoption center.

About 1 in 5 people bitten by a dog requires medical attention, and children are the most common victims of bite injuries. Renters with pets are wise to gauge their risk level and protect themselves against lawsuits.

What’s the difference between pet insurance and renters insurance?

Renters who are dog owners should consider having a pet health insurance policy and a renters insurance policy with pet liability coverages because they serve different yet important purposes.

Renters insurance – Renters insurance is not the same as pet insurance. Renters insurance with pet liability coverage protects you from being personally liable for damages or personal injury caused by your pet.

Pet insurance – Pet insurance helps you pay for pet health care expenses. Coverage options vary. Many plans do not cover pre-existing conditions or routine veterinary visits. Other plans may cover alternative care such as acupuncture and chiropractics. It depends on what your pet needs and the coverage options you choose.

There are different tiers of health insurance coverage for pets. Most basic plans cover veterinary procedures and treatments for accidents and illness such as cancer, with caps on reimbursements. Comprehensive plans are more expensive, but they include coverage for X-rays, prescriptions and lab fees, often with a lower deductible. Pet wellness plans reimburse for pet physicals, vaccinations and heartworm treatments.

If you have an expensive show dog, you may want to also consider buying a theft and life insurance policy in case the dog is stolen or dies en route to an event. Most pet insurance policies will cost less when your dog is young.

How can renters insurance protect you and your pet?

A renters insurance policy is for people who don’t own the place they live in and want to protect their personal property and shield themselves against liability. Nearly one-third of renters live with a dog.

If you have an animal, you should have enough coverage to protect you from being sued in the event your pet injures a guest or neighbor — or even another dog — or causes property damage. Most renters insurance policies do not cover “exotic pets” such as reptiles, amphibians and ferrets.

Renters insurance pays for damages to your rental home and to other people and their possessions if you, your pet or a family member causes injury or damages. It also pays medical expenses when a guest is injured in your home and extra living expenses if your home becomes uninhabitable after a fire, flood, storm or other disaster.

Liability coverage is part of a standard renters insurance policy. Liability coverage pays medical and legal expenses up to your policy limit — typically $100,000 to $300,000 — if your pet injures someone. If your dog bites another dog, your liability coverage might also pay the veterinary expenses for the other dog. Any costs above your policy limit are your responsibility.

Your renters liability insurance generally won’t protect you if your dog damages property that you own. If you have a renters insurance policy, read it thoroughly and check for coverage limits under certain circumstances, such as when an incident occurs in your rented home or away from it.

“Each consumer should weigh the risks of their unique situation to determine what type and how much rental insurance they should carry,” says Ray Farmer, president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners and director of the South Carolina Department of Insurance.

The cost of renters insurance

Homeowners with mortgage debt are required by their lenders to have property damage and liability insurance. But less than half of renters carry renters insurance, according to the Insurance Information Institute, even though the typical renters insurance policy costs only $180 a year, or $15 a month. Renters insurance is basically the personal property and liability coverage found in a homeowners policy.

Some landlords require their tenants to have renters insurance. Landlords may want to avoid a dispute in case the renter’s belongings are damaged on the rental property. Some people mistakenly think that a landlord’s insurance policy will cover a renter’s personal damages or liability. The landlord’s policy covers his assets, such as the apartment building, but it doesn’t cover the renter.

What won’t renters insurance cover for pets?

The pet damages and liability coverages in your renters policy may not cover you for certain incidents or your dog breed may be denied, depending upon the state and the insurance company. Your renters policy liability limits may be significantly reduced or not applicable at all if you have one of the dog breeds on a banned breed list. You may want to purchase a personal umbrella policy or pet liability insurance for extra coverage.

Personal Umbrella Policy (PUP): Umbrella policies provide extra liability coverage, giving you another layer of protection if your liability policy doesn’t cover the incident, the dog breed or you have reached your policy limits.

Pet Liability Insurance: A canine liability policy gives you liability coverage that your renters insurance may not include, such as coverage for dogs with a history of aggression, off-duty police dogs or extended coverage for incidents that occur away from home.

“It is always good for pet owners to consider their specific issues, such as dog breed or if there is any aggressive history from the dog,” says Farmer of the NAIC. “Owners should look specifically at the policy to understand what they will be responsible to cover and take steps to mitigate any damage that might happen.”

If your dog has bitten someone, insurers consider it to be more of a risk, regardless of the breed. Even if your dog has never bitten or attacked anyone, if it’s a breed deemed dangerous or risky, such as a pit bull, it will be tough to insure.

Certain dog breeds may require more insurance

The list of breeds below comes from a study of fatal dog bites commissioned by the U.S. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control in 2000. The study lasted for 19 years and found that there were about 12 dog-bite fatalities per year during that time, and 50 percent of those involved pit bulls, rottweilers or combinations of those breeds. The study also found that male dogs were more likely to fatally bite someone, and that neutered dogs were less likely to attack than sexually intact dogs.

Here are the breeds on the study list, plus a couple more that are on different lists from insurance companies:

  • Pit bull.
  • Rottweiler.
  • Husky or Malamute type.
  • German shepherd.
  • Wolf-dog hybrids.
  • Chow Chow.
  • Doberman pinscher.
  • Great Dane.
  • Saint Bernard.
  • Perro de Presa Canario.
  • Akita.
  • Rhodesian ridgeback.

Bottom line

With dogs being such popular pets in the U.S., it’s no surprise that they can sometimes be a liability. That’s why it’s important to make sure you have adequate property damage and liability coverage if you’re renting your home.

If you are looking to cover your pet’s health and medical costs, buy a pet insurance policy in addition to your renters policy. If you have a “dangerous” dog breed, consider getting an umbrella policy or a canine liability policy.

“Each consumer should weigh the risks of their unique situation to determine what type and how much rental insurance they should carry,” says Farmer. “Insurance is something that consumers buy, but hope to never have to use. It is important that each person sit down with a trusted agent to discuss their needs and exposures before making a choice on whether renters insurance is right for them.”