​Dogs are putting the bite on insurers -- and everybody

Phoenix mail carrier John Schmidt had just put a letter in the mailbox when he was confronted with a deliverer's worst nightmare. A 60-pound mutt clamped its choppers on Schmidt's left calf. The dog's owner came out, pulled the canine off and said, "This has happened before, just file a report."

It's that attitude that has helped make Arizona the most expensive state for dog bites. Homeowners in the Grand Canyon state, or their insurance company, pay out on average $57,000 if their canine bites, mauls or otherwise abuses a pedestrian, bicyclist, child or even postal carrier. That's $20,000 higher than the national average of $37,000 a claim.

May 15 began America's week-long celebration -- if you want to call it that -- of National Dog Bite Prevention Week. Promoted by (you guessed it) the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), along with insurers, children's organizations and even animal lovers. The idea is to encourage people across the country to keep their dogs leashed, muzzled, fenced in or, at the very least, friendly.

While the actual number of dog injury claims has declined more than 9 percent over the last 12 years, the cost associated with disruptive canines has risen more than 94 percent to $571 million, according to the Insurance Information Institute (III), the industry's clearinghouse. This includes not only dog bites, but other canine damage, such as forcing bicyclists to the ground and bouncing their heads on concrete.

And that has everyone barking out loud. Children under age 14 account for one-third of the victims, often from the family pooch. Mail carriers are another favorite target, particularly if, like Schmidt, they're "swing" carriers who fill in for the usual carrier and don't know which homes to beware of.

With 6,549 postal employees attacked by canines last year, the USPS recently announced safety measures requiring customers to indicate on an application if a dog is on the premises before a package will be delivered. In addition, dog owners could be asked to pick up their mail at the post office if a letter carrier feels threatened. And if a dog is roaming the streets, people in the area could also have to pick up their mail.

In addition, states get hit with a bill. Dog-bite injuries treated at Arizona hospitals cost $55 million, according to a four-year study by the Arizona Department of Health Services, with one-third being paid by Medicaid.

Homeowners might think they get off scot-free given that most liability coverage is between $100,000 and $300,000, which should cover a lot of dog bites. But "you could wind up with an increase in your homeowner's insurance premium," warned III spokesperson Loretta Worters. "Or you could be dropped by your insurer."

In some states, homeowners can be hit with a misdemeanor, and in San Francisco a dog owner was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after the pet's lethal attack, and her husband received a prison sentence.

Why are dog-bite costs soaring? The epidemic isn't due to an abundance of pit bulls or, even worse, personal injury lawyers. In part, it could be because dogs and people are becoming more crowded into ever-expanding urban areas like Phoenix.

Medical costs are a major factor. The Arizona study showed that the number of hospitalizations for dog bites increased 139 percent between 2008 and 2012. Many of these required a tetanus vaccination, and if the dog was unidentified, a painful series of rabies shots. A trauma doctor and plastic surgeon are often needed for a severe mauling.

Plus, an insurer has to pay twice for an injured postal employee: first for the victim and then for the cost of an additional employee to cover the victim's route, said Angela Thorpe, a spokesperson for State Farm, the nation's largest home insurer.

But it's the dogs, most of whom probably thought they were protecting their home and family, who pay the greatest price, often being euthanized.

Veterinarians like Dr. Bonnie Beaver of Texas A&M University have said the most important thing in preventing dog attacks is to "socialize" your dog, particularly with members of the family. Other advice: Don't let children bother a dog that's eating or sleeping, avoid eye contact with strange or aggressive animals, and keep the family dog secured if a stranger comes to the door.

Particularly a mail carrier.

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.