Image: Brown Chihuahua snarling with teeth showing © Michelle Kelley Photography, Flickr RF, Getty Images

A dog is man's best friend -- loyal, protective and always ready to fetch your ratty slippers. But with a quick snap of his jaws, Fido can quickly become your wallet's worst enemy.

Last year, the average cost of a dog bite claim was $26,166, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

That could buy a lot of Alpo -- around 33,000 cans, in fact.

Insurance claims associated with dog bites actually slipped nearly 5% in 2010, according to III. But payouts associated with bites rose last year and have soared 37% since 2003.

Many dog lovers are in denial about the risk sleeping peacefully at their feet. Even a well-mannered dog can attack suddenly if it is startled or simply not feeling well.

In that sense, pit bulls have "gotten a bad rap" compared with other dogs, says State Farm Insurance spokeswoman Heather Paul.

"Any dog can bite -- small dogs, large dogs," she says.

Should you worry?

How much financial danger does your pooch pose? III says costs associated with dog bites are rising due to growing medical costs and larger settlements, judgments and jury awards.

As Paul says, "You certainly have a lot more attorneys out there that specialize in dog-bite attacks."

Your potential for legal and financial jeopardy also partially depends on where you live.

Under dog-bite statutes, owners are liable for all injuries or property damage their dog causes. Negligence laws make owners liable when someone is hurt as a result of the owner's failure to control the dog.

If you are deemed responsible for your dog's bad behavior, you could end up footing the cost of someone else's:

  • Medical bills.
  • Lost wages.
  • Pain and suffering.
  • Property damage.

Some states give you an initial break -- a sort of "free chomp" allowance -- commonly known as the "one-bite" rule. In these states, an owner cannot be held liable until the animal's "vicious propensity" has been established, typically in the form of a first bite.

Nearly two dozen states have adopted a form of the one-bite rule, most of them clustered in the western and south-central parts of the country.

Regardless of your local laws, a dog with a checkered history can sabotage your chances of getting home insurance.

In 2010, State Farm -- the nation's largest insurer -- paid out more than $90 million associated with nearly 3,500 dog bite claims.

The company recently released a list of the top 10 states for State Farm dog-bite claims. States with large populations dominated -- California came in first with 369 claims worth $11.3 million in 2010 -- but you also want to give a wide berth to dogs in Minnesota (No. 8 with 139 claims and $3.4 million in payouts) and Indiana (No.10 with 114 claims and $1.8 million in payouts).

Paul says State Farm makes judgments about dogs on a case-by-case basis. The insurer may overlook a past isolated incident where a dog jumped up and scratched someone.

But an unprovoked attack is more likely to result in a decision not to insure. In that case, forget about getting a State Farm policy until you "no longer have that dog in your residence," Paul says.

Protecting yourself

If you have a dog with a particularly nasty disposition, there are things you can do to cut your risk of being sued. Paul's tips include:

  • Socialize your dog.
  • If you keep a dog in the backyard or outside, get a fence. "Chains can break very easily," Paul says.
  • Enroll your dog in obedience training.

Remember to exercise extra care whenever your dog is near a child. Kids make up half of all Americans who seek medical attention for dog bites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The consequences of such attacks can be heartbreaking.

"Children tend to get bitten more in the face because they are lower to the ground and at dog level," Paul says.

Also, renters with pets should never go without renters insurance, Paul says. Too many renters assume that anything that happens on the property is the landlord's responsibility, she says.

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"It's not up to the landlord to handle that claim," she says. "The cost falls on the renter."

While it's important for both homeowners and renters to lower their risk via insurance, using a little common sense is the best way to lower your risk of being the target of a dog-bite claim.

"Your best bet to avoid this issue is to be a responsible pet owner," Paul says.

This article was reported by Chris Kissell for Insurance.com.