Last Updated 4/13/2023
Issue: Breed-specific legislation (BSL) are laws that regulate or ban dog breeds which are believed to be dangerous to humans and other animals. In the 1980s, BSL began to gain popularity in the United States because of media attention surrounding pit bull attacks, which led to research about dog breeds and aggression. While the results of these studies varied, both over time and location, they generally all used the same methodology to detect breed: visual identification. The results of this research, including one study by the Center for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) that examined human fatalities from dog bite wounds 1979 through 1998, were used to justify the creation of “breed lists:” dog breeds thought to be inherently aggressive or more prone to biting. Experts have pointed out that data collection methods associating bites with a particular dog breed are flawed, as identification of a dog based only on physical characteristics is not definitive. Still, some insurers currently rely on these lists when underwriting homeowners and renters liability insurance policies, making it difficult for consumers with dogs on the list to obtain sufficient coverage. Opponents of these lists contend there is a lack of reliable actuarial data associating dog breeds with specific negative behaviors, and that insurers fail to consider a dog’s individual history and focus solely on breed.
According to the Insurance Information Institute, dog-related incidents are a significant driver of insurance claims. Claims associated with dog incidents cost insurers over $1 billion in 2022, a 28 percent increase over 2021, with the average cost per claim rising by 32 percent. In response, some insurers have tried to control costs by using breed lists to deny coverage for specific dog breeds. However, there is a lack of conclusive data to show specific dog breeds are drivers of claims or are more innately risky.
Background: Since their enactment, BSL and breed lists have been highly controversial and proponents on both sides remain divided. Insurance industry associations, such as the American Property & Casualty Insurance Association (APCIA) defend breed lists and oppose efforts to overturn the practice.
Meanwhile, other animal welfare and legal organizations such as the American Society for the Prevention and Cruelty to Animals, the Humane Society of the United States, the American Bar Association, and the American Veterinary Medicine Association claim BSL is based on misinformation and does little to protect citizens.
A major source of contention over BSL involves the problems and biases surrounding the determination of breed. BSL generally uses physical characteristics to determine a breed type to ban, with pit bull mixes most frequently targeted, along with Rottweilers, Dobermans, and boxers. However, the term “pit bull” does not signify an official breed but is rather a catch-all term that places mixed breed dogs with physical characteristics of the pedigreed bull/Staffordshire terriers under the umbrella of “pit bull.” The research into the difficulty of discerning dogs based on appearance alone has shown that even those very familiar with dog breeds, such as veterinarians and shelter staff, cannot accurately determine the breed of many dogs based on physical characteristics. The only way to definitively determine a dog’s heritage is through genetic testing. At the same time, many dogs are often incorrectly classified as a pit bull mix. Given both the difficulties of identifying breed and inherent biases which lead to the overrepresentation of pit bulls, animal rights groups argue that breed lists and BSL are largely flawed and unenforceable.
BSL opponents also argue that BSL policies are rooted in, and cause, discrimination. A 2018 article in the journal Animal Law suggests BSL targeting pit bulls are based in racial bias. The author notes that pit bulls were once “prototypical American pets,” and featured widely on recruiting posters for World Wars I and II as “America’s Dog.” However, this perception changed in the 1980s when negative media attention associated the dogs with the War on Drugs, gang violence, and hip-hop. In 2007, the heightened publicity of the Michael Vick dog-fighting ring case further reinforced the cultural associations between African-Americans and pit bulls. In totality, these cultural events coincided with the rise in BSL. Today, opponents argue that BSL has been continuously linked to racial discrimination. For example, a University of Denver study found that the enforcement of the city’s pit bull ban was concentrated in racially-diverse areas. The study also determined that while the city spent $100 million over 30 years in enforcement, it hadn’t had a measurable impact on public safety.
Animal welfare groups contend that BSL is flawed because it doesn’t consider the foundational issues which coincide with aggression, such as irresponsible or abusive owners. A 2022 study published in the journal Science found that while at least 80% of physical traits can be tied to DNA, only 9% of personality traits are linked to a dog’s breed. The authors also discovered a low correlation between breed and behavior, concluding that environment has a bigger impact on dog behavior than breed. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) notes that “breed-specific bans are a simplistic answer to a far more complex social problem,” and that they distract communities from more sensible approaches to dealing with dog aggression, such as licensing, leash laws, and appropriate socialization and training. The AVMA focuses on advocacy for responsible pet ownership in hopes of moving responsibility for dog bites away from so-called dangerous breeds.
Other alternatives to BSL that have also been proposed include dangerous animal laws that are non-breed specific, like enforcement of local leash laws, as well as stronger enforcement of animal cruelty laws, and the prohibition of dog fighting. The creation of spay and neuter programs has also been suggested.
Backlash against BSL has recently gained momentum, as more communities are now repealing BSL than enacting it. Currently, 73 municipalities across the United States have repealed their BSL bans, and public opinion supports it, as well. A 2022 study found that 70% of participants were opposed to a breed ban and felt education around animal behavior were good alternatives. Movement on this issue is also occurring in the insurance regulatory sector. New York and Nevada legislatures passed restrictions that forbid or limit insurers from solely relying on a dog’s breed when determining homeowner’s liability coverage. Similar legislation is under review in Illinois. Some insurers, such as State Farm, only look at an individual dog’s bite history (instead of its breed) when underwriting policies. Additionally, in November 2022, The National Conference of Insurance Legislators (NCOIL) adopted a model law that prohibits insurance companies from denying homeowners and renters liability insurance based on the breed of their dog. Other insurance groups offer consumers non-breed specific safety tips but do not take a position on use of breed information in underwriting.
Status: At the 2021 Spring National Meeting, the Property & Casualty (C) Insurance Committee heard a presentation from an industry representative from the Insurance Consumer Coalition for Pet Owners (ICCPO). The presentation addressed insurance rating for dog breeds, including a request for state insurance regulators to collect additional rating data and disallowing the use of dangerous dog breed lists. A white paper published in November 2020 about dog breed rating from the ICCPO and other industry groups formed the basis of the discussion.
The Committee continues to monitor issues relating to homeowners and renters insurance.
Committees Related to This Topic
- Breed discrimination in the homeowners insurance industry (Insurance Consumer Coalition for Pet Owners, American Dog Breeders Association, et al., November 2020)
- Dog Breeds and Homeowner’s Insurance: A research report compiled by the NAIC Library (2022)
- Spotlight on: Dog bite liability (Insurance Information Institute, March 2022)
- U.S. Home Insurers Paid out Nearly $900M in Dog-Related Claims in 2021 (Insurance Information Institute, April 2022)
- US adults’ perceptions of dog breed bans, dog aggression and breed-specific laws (International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, August 2022)
- The Black Man’s Dog: The social context of breed specific legislation (Ann Linder, Animal Law, Vol, 25, Issue 51, 2018)
- The Black Man’s Dog: The racial implications of breed restrictions in home insurance (recorded panel presentation, Animal Farm Foundation)