Shelters and Rescues at Risk
Insurance Issues, Safety, and Sustainability
Half of California’s shelter animals move through nonprofit organizations, and the very ability for those organizations to function is at risk. As the result of dog bite claims with payouts in the millions, insurance companies are re-evaluating their willingness to provide liability coverage for animal shelters and rescues. Some insurers have modified their coverage and others have backed out of the market completely. While there are some companies still providing liability insurance for shelters and rescues, coverage can be quite costly, and all coverage is truly at risk if we don’t, as an industry, do a better job of mitigating risk. At the end of the day, whether or not companies decide to insure us, comes down to the amounts paid out in claims, which sadly, have increased 131% in the past 10 years. It is also important to note that insurance risk is generally assessed on the industry-level, so lawsuits affecting public shelters, nonprofit shelters, and rescue organizations, all affect our collective ability to sustain liability coverage.
Whether bites happen within the shelter or post-adoption, known aggressive history of the dog can become a major factor in determining the size of the settlement, should the victim decide to sue. California has laws in place that require written disclosure of any known bite and the circumstances around the bite, which is helpful in ensuring proper disclosure and safe placement. However, we must be mindful that in addition to disclosure, it is our responsibility as animal welfare professionals to ensure public safety. Public safety and public trust are critically important factors in our work and in our ability to save lives by attracting adopters.
While concerns around severe aggression pertain to only a very small percentage of dogs, decisions to euthanize for aggressive behavior are difficult and can be exceptionally hard on staff and volunteers. This matter has been recently compounded by a California appellate court decision requiring shelters to release these animals, regardless of bite history, upon request to approved 501c3 rescue organizations. This is problematic as these animals are generally placed in foster homes where volunteers and members of the public are put at risk. There is little oversight of 501c3 rescue organizations, and no consistencies related to expertise, training, or safety measures.
Taking measures to improve safety is imperative. In addition to making safe and responsible placement decisions, shelters and rescues can also mitigate risk by having clear policies, procedures, and documentation practices in place that are adhered to consistently to help ensure the safety of staff, volunteers, and members of the public. While there is inherent risk in handling dogs, insurers have let us know that it is immensely helpful if organizations can demonstrate adherence to safety procedures, appropriate training, and consistent documentation and disclosure of known or observed behavior issues.
As shelters face high intakes, slow adoptions, overcrowding, and staffing shortages, we recognize that implementing changes can be challenging. We encourage organizations to start somewhere to make improvements along the way that support the safety of people and animals. Each organization’s success in mitigating risk helps our entire industry and can make a difference in ensuring that nonprofit shelters and rescues can continue to operate. Trainings are available on the CalAnimals website accompanied by lots of great tips and resources. CalAnimals will continue to work with the insurance industry and with other national stakeholders, to compile best practices around safety and risk management. It is our hope that we can ultimately encourage insurers to stay in this market as we know that without insurance, shelters and rescues will be unable to function, leaving all of California’s homeless animals relying exclusively on government shelters – a result that would be catastrophic for the animals and for the staff and volunteers at those agencies that are already under-resourced and overwhelmed.
It is our honor to support shelters and their incredibly important work in reuniting lost pets with their families, facilitating adoptions, providing field services to investigate cruelty and neglect, coordinating disaster response, and helping families get the resources they need to keep people and pets together. The magnitude of need is immense and the efforts these organizations are putting forth are heroic. We deeply appreciate their amazing work and hope we can collectively stay focused on doing what’s best for the animals, best for our communities, and sustainable for our shelters.
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