Slippery Business: Exotic Pets and Home Insurance

Pet lovers no longer simply stick to sharing their homes with cats and dogs. More now opt for exotic or unusual pets such as snakes, monkeys, tigers, deer, bears and rare birds.

Accurate numbers are tough to come by, because some states don’t require residents to report ownership of exotic or specialty animals. But the American Veterinary Medical Association, through its 2012 U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook, estimates that 10.6 percent of households own one or more exotic or specialty animals. And according to National Geographic, more exotic animals live in peoples’ homes than in zoos. For example, by some estimates, as many as 7,000 tigers live in the U.S. as pets.

Though exotic pets can make each day an adventure, people often forget to factor in the insurance complications associated with owning them. Your home insurance almost certainly excludes unusual pets. However, there are steps you can take to stay protected.

Why you need coverage

You may be wondering why it matters if your home insurance doesn’t cover your exotic pet — after all, you can control any damage the animal does to the home and just pay for repairs yourself. No problem, right?

Wrong — there’s a very big potential problem. Standard home insurance, in addition to protecting the structure of your home (and your possessions) from specified perils such as fire, wind and theft, also provides liability coverage in case you’re responsible for an injury or property damage. If your exotic animal is excluded, you won’t have this coverage should your pet bite or maul a visitor.

Not only could you be on the hook for the victim’s medical expenses, but they could file a lawsuit seeking lost income and payments for pain and suffering, among other claims. Even if you win the lawsuit, you’ll have to pay for your legal defense.

The money flowing out of your bank account could add up quickly. The average dog bite claim in the U.S. results in a payout averaging $27,862, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Someone attacked by an exotic pet could suffer even more serious injuries. And exotic animals can present more of a risk than other pets because their behavior can change with the seasons or with life cycles in ways that humans don’t fully understand, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

Even a docile exotic pet can pose a threat. The ASPCA reports that as many as 90 percent of snakes carry salmonella, and 25 percent of macaques (a type of monkey) have or have had the herpes B virus, which could be deadly to humans. Unusual pets can transmit a plethora of diseases including chlamydia, hepatitis A, rabies, monkey pox, tuberculosis and measles, to name a few. And if a visitor gets sick after coming into contact with your pet, you could face a serious lawsuit.

What’s an exotic pet owner to do?

You can see how dangerous it would be to go without the liability coverage normally provided by home insurance. Luckily, some companies sell exotic pet insurance that protects you if your animal causes injury or illness.

How much it will cost depends on your pet and the potential risk involved in ownership of it. Some policies will be pricey. Your best option: Get quotes from a number of exotic pet insurance providers — the cost can vary greatly. Be sure you’re considering similar coverages and limits in each quote.

One tip to lower premiums: Ask whether you can increase your deductible — the amount you pay out of pocket for a claim. Only do this, however, if you can come up with the deductible on demand.

Although it can be expensive, exotic pet insurance is a crucial part of owning an unusual pet. A specialty pet in itself can be a large investment, of course. But you have to protect your finances from the threat of lawsuits arising from your animal.

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Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Zillow.

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