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State Farm Pays More Dog Bite Claims Amid Pandemic Stress

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Flickr: A_Peach / CC BY 2.0
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Dogs are picking up on their human's stress and anxiety during the pandemic, leading some to bite or injure people in their households.

Tensions are high during the pandemic—and not just for people. Dogs pick up on stress and anxiety, too.  That can lead to aggressive behavior.

A new report from State Farm shows dog-related injury claims are on the rise during the pandemic.

State Farm paid nearly $157 million dollars for just under 3,200 dog bite or injury claims last year across the U.S. The sharpest spike was in March 2020, at the outset of the pandemic.

Heather Paul, the insurance company’s dog behavior specialist, said they saw a rise of 115%.

“It was clear that dogs were picking up on our anxiety,” Paul said. “We were also, in a sense, invading their space. Our dogs and pets that are used to us being gone for the day so they can have quiet time, suddenly, they had to live with us 24/7—and that can be a little nerve wracking.”

Paul said that trend changed as things started to mellow out. As people got more comfortable operating out of their homes, she said, so did our pets. But now, there’s a new concern:

“As we transitioned back into a normal post-COVID life … our pets who have gotten used to us being at home are now going to be left alone. And so there are instances of separation anxiety where dogs can exhibit anxiety and stressful behavior. They may bite or they could destroy property.”

Paul said another concern is that so-called pandemic pets, which were adopted or fostered during the lockdown, may not have been properly socialized. Opportunities to meet other people and dogs were more limited, she said, and that means pets could get easily overwhelmed.

“We don't want to rush them,” Paul said. “We should all make sure that we are focused as much on our mental health as the mental health of our dogs to reduce any chance of injury.”

Paul said there are things pet owners can do to protect themselves and their pets.

“We want to focus on education about responsible pet ownership. Everything from walking your dog on a leash, understanding and recognizing your dog's body language and changes where your dog is not comfortable, but also talking to your insurance agent about what the policy limits are on your homeowners or renters insurance,” she said.

Paul said a lot of policies cap between $100,000 and $300,000. But State Farm recommends pet owners consider adding an additional personal liability policy that would cover expenses up to several million dollars.

“One of the reasons we're seeing an increase in the amount paid for dog-related injury claims is because of rising costs of health care. You may have someone that breaks the hip and needs physical therapy—and that's going to cost more,” she said. “But we also see more and more people that are suing to cover the cost of their expenses. And that can get very expensive.”

Paul said pet owners shouldn’t be discouraged if their dog is demonstrating potentially aggressive behavior. She said it’s important to acknowledge the possibility of risk and take responsibility.

“We have pets because of the companionship that they bring us, the joy that they bring us. And our pets look to us to help keep them safe and to recognize when they're not comfortable,” Paul said. “Don't put your dog into a situation where it could potentially injure someone. We want to set up our pets to be successful and not fail.”

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Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.