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Service animals and emotional support animals: A guide for investors

Leasing tips

Many landlords prohibit pets in their leases. Upon learning that their potential tenant may have an emotional support animal, service animal, or assistance animal, the landlord may be prompted to decline the application for this reason. 

That, however, would be a violation of the law since these animals are not pets. Instead, these are working animals who provide people with disabilities with emotional or additional assistance.  The type of complaint that federal agencies deal with most often is about people with disabilities.  

And if you have any further questions, you may want to consult with a lawyer. 

What’s the difference between an emotional support animal and a service animal?

Emotional support animals are therapeutic animals that provide support for people living with PTSD, anxiety, depression, etc. They are most often cats or dogs but don’t have to be. 

Service animals are animals trained to help people living with a disability. Some examples include blindness, being a wheelchair user, or being at risk for seizures. They are always dogs. 

You can tell a dog is a service dog because it’s usually wearing a vest that says “service dog” or similar. Often the vest also warns not to pet the dog so as not to conflict with its work.

Both types of animals are allowed to go wherever the owner goes so long as it’s safe for them to be there. Although there are more restrictions for emotional support animals in public spaces, they’re both protected by housing laws. 

How do housing laws affect support animals?

You cannot charge an owner of an emotional support animal or service animal with pet rent or pet deposit because these animals aren’t pets. Fear of property damage isn’t the only reason that landlords disallow pets.

There’s also the fact that landlords can be held liable for injuries caused by the dog. But even if you have a clause in your lease that disallows pets, you have to allow support and service animals. Similarly, while some owners allow pets under the condition that they are particular breeds or meet the landlord’s approval, this cannot apply to the service animal.

The only time you can veto a support animal is if they pose a health or safety risk to others. Although pursuing this route is inadvisable since the fair housing office is most likely to rule in favor of the person living with a disability. You could even end up incurring significant penalties for unreasonably denying a service animal. To win such a case, the animal would need overwhelming evidence that the service animal has a history of being a threat to other tenants.

How to verify a support animal?

No verification is necessary if the disability is visibly apparent. Don’t ask what the disability is!

If, however, the disability is not visibly apparent, you may ask for written verification. As of 2020, to qualify for a support animal, there has to be a relationship or connection between the person living with a disability and their need for a service animal. The written verification to receive should explain that connection or relationship. 

The verification can come from:

  • A doctor or medical professional
  • A support group such as AA
  • A non-medical service agency
  • A trusted third party such as a caregiver or family member
  • The person with the disability themselves.

While the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) haven't stipulated what self-verification looks like, a verification letter written by a person with a disability should stand up in court. Nonetheless, if you get a self-verification letter, you should get another form of verification and consult your lawyer.

As of January 2020, the group or person who provides third-party verification must know the person with a disability somehow. Consult HUD Notice FHEO-2020-01 for more information.

You can ask for a letter of verification at any time. Although, in California, tenants don’t have to tell you that they need a service animal.

Can an owner contact the verification source for a person with a disability’s service animal?

No, this would be a transgression of fair housing laws and HIPAA privacy laws. If a landlord is given a letter of verification from a medical professional, it must be accepted. A reasonable accommodation form can be requested. 

Does a service animal need to be formally trained?

Most service animals are formally trained, although emotional support animals don’t need training. Either way, training doesn’t have to be confirmed. To be a service animal, thought certification and registration are necessary.

Can any animal be a support animal?

Almost! As of January 2020, only exotic animals and reptiles (not counting turtles) can’t be emotional support animals.

Can a resident be evicted if they bring home a support animal after the lease is signed?

Include animals in rental lease agreements

Consider including animals in rental lease agreements to preempt disputes down the line. (Credit: Getty Images)

Include animals in rental lease agreementsNo, so long as the emotional-support or service animal is verified, your tenant cannot be evicted. It’s against the law to end a lease because a person with a disability requires special accommodations or because a potential tenant needs a service animal

Could my liability insurance go up because of a service or support animal?

It might, yes. Particular breeds or animals that exceed a weight limit may make your liability insurance go up, which could lead to an increase in the policy’s cost or even losing the policy altogether. 

These are some of the few cases that someone might take an emotional support animal to court. To win this trial, the landlord would have to demonstrate that the additional cost or loss of a policy leads to an undue administrative or financial toll. Rarely do such suits end with the person with a disability losing.

What should an owner do if other residents get jealous of a tenant with a service or support animal?

Explain that the animal is a working animal rather than a pet while respecting the privacy of the tenant in question. 

Bottom line on allowing service and emotional support animals

Dog on couch

(Credit: Getty Images)

Service and support animals are only going to become more prevalent in American society. 

Landlords and property managers need to know as much current and relevant law as possible to provide adequate accommodations for people with disabilities and to avoid incurring fines.

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