When screening applicants for your rental property, you may run across one who notes they have an assistance animal. Whether it’s an emotional support animal or service animal, they are both protected by law. The most important thing you need to know is that they are not pets. These are animals that work. They provide emotional or additional assistance to people with disabilities.
People often assume that these two animals are the same. While they are both protected by the law, there are important differences to note.
Disclaimer: Please check with your attorney regarding all matters pertaining to assistance animals. This blog is general in nature and should not be relied upon without checking with your attorney.
Service animals are animals that have been trained to assist a person, typically with something physical. A service animal is always a dog. Service animals do not need to be registered anywhere.
Common reasons for a service animal include:
- Wheelchair-bound individuals
- Being prone to seizures
You might recognize a service animal by the vest they are wearing, usually labeled “service dog” or something similar to that. Service animals are allowed entry anywhere that their owners are, provided that it is safe. This includes buses, airports, workspaces, planes, and stores.
You are not allowed to ask a person what their disability is or ask that their animal demonstrate how it’s a service animal. The only exception is for planes, which is outlined in the rules provided by the Department of Transportation.
Emotional Support Animals
Emotional support animals are therapeutic animals and are there to provide support for those that suffer from things like post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, etc. They are most often a cat or dog, but a variety of animals can count as an ESA.
You cannot ask a person why they have an emotional support animal. You can, however, request documentation, such as a letter from your mental health professional, to confirm that the need for the ESA is a result of a disability.
Emotional support animals have more restrictions in public spaces. If a retail store states that there are no pets allowed, this applies to emotional support animals. There is no official registry for ESAs. Some pet owners seek out private companies to provide documentation, but this does not guarantee them any additional rights or protections.
However, both emotional support animals and service animals are protected by housing laws.
Support Animals and Housing Laws
Because emotional support animals and service animals are not considered pets, you cannot charge a pet rent or pet deposit. Even if you don’t want pets in the home, you must allow for service animals and support animals. You also cannot discriminate against specific breeds.
The only circumstances in which you may deny a support animal is if the animal would be a threat to the health and safety of others. We don’t recommend using these reasons, however. Disability complaints are one of the most common complaints the fair housing office receives and it’s very unlikely that things will work out in your favor. You could end up having to pay heavy fees for unreasonably denied service animals.
Occasionally you might do a walkthrough inspection and find an animal at the property, even though there isn’t one listed on the lease. The tenant might tell you it’s an emotional support animal. California law says the tenants are not required to disclose their need for an assistance animal. You can request a verification letter any time, so if this should happen, ask for the letter from a qualified professional.
Verification of a Service Animal
If the disability is visibly apparent, no verification is needed for the service animal. Do not ask the tenant what their disability is if this is the case. If a person says that they have an emotional support animal but there is not an obvious disability, you may ask the tenant for written verification.
The letter simply need state that the person in question is required to have a service animal. People that can verify this need are as follows:
- Doctor or health professional
- Peer support group (such as Alcoholics Anonymous)
- A non-medical service agency
- Reliable third party (caregiver, family member, etc.)
The Housing and Urban Development and Department of Justice have not clearly outlined what self-verification entails. Essentially, should a disabled person provide a letter written by themselves for verification, this letter should be able to stand up in court.
For example, if a person provides a statement that says something along the lines of “I have a medical condition and require a service/emotional support animal,” they should be able to verify that in a court of law. Verification could be the doctor’s name that diagnosed you and when you were diagnosed. We recommend that if a tenant provides you with a self-verification letter, seek additional verification and speak with your attorney.
As of January 1, 2022, there is a new law in California that seeks to address the issue of people misrepresenting their emotional support animals as service animals. It also intends to stop businesses that provide ESA certificates, ID cards, vests, etc. from misleading people into thinking that emotional support animals are the same as service animals.
The first part of this law states that any business that provides dogs as emotional support animals will now be required to provide a statement acknowledging that the animal does NOT count as a service animal and that representing the dog as a service animal is illegal. The same statement must be provided by businesses that sell ESA certificates, ID cards, and vests.
The other part of the law states that an official ESA letter is required to prove to a landlord or other relevant parties that the animal is an emotional support animal. The letter must be from a Licensed Mental Health Professional and that person must meet the following requirements:
- They must hold a legitimate and active license. The license number, the effective date, their jurisdiction, and the type of professional license must be included in the letter.
- They must be licensed to provide professional services within the scope of the license in the jurisdiction in which the documentation is provided.
- They must establish a professional relationship with the client at least 30 days before providing the ESA letter.
- They must conduct a clinical evaluation of the client to assess their need for an emotional support animal.
- They must provide a verbal or written notice to the individual similar to the sales notices explained above – stating that an emotional support animal does not qualify as a service animal, and that misrepresenting the support animal as a service animal is against the law.
Common Questions Regarding Service Animals
Can I contact the tenant’s verification source directly?
No, this violates fair housing laws and HIPAA privacy laws. If the tenant provides you with a letter from their therapist, you must accept it as is. You can request that the tenant get their therapist/doctor/etc. to provide a reasonable accommodation form. You can learn more about that here.
Can I ask the tenant about their supposed disability?
No, you cannot directly ask the tenant why they need a service or support animal. You can request a verification letter if it’s an emotional support animal. Should you feel the letter is not legitimate, you can seek further verification with a reasonable accommodation form.
Does the animal need to be formally trained?
No, they do not. While most service animals are formally trained, a landlord or property manager need not confirm this. Emotional support animals do not require training.
My tenant has a restricted breed as a service animal. Can I deny them?
No, because a service animal is not a normal pet. The rule that you will not accept specific breeds (i.e. husky, American bulldog, etc) does not apply to them. The HUD states that breed, weight, and size limits do not apply to service animals. If you feel this animal would cause harm to those around it, you can deny it. We strongly advise against this.
Does the ADA require that service animals be certified as service animals?
No, mandatory registration of service animals is not allowed under the ADA. However, service animals are subject to the same licensing and vaccination rules that are applied to all dogs.
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