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Service Animals & Emotional Support Animals: What Landlords Need to Know

Olivia Back

When screening your tenants, you may run across an applicant who notes they have an emotional support animal. Whether it’s an emotional support animal, service animal, or assistance animal, they are all 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.

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.



Emotional Support Animals vs. Service Animals

People often assume that these two animals are the same. While they are both protected by the law, there are important differences to note. Emotional support animals are therapeutic animals, usually a cat or dog, and are there to provide support for those that suffer from things like post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, etc.

Service animals are animals that have been trained to assist a person, typically with something physical. A service animal is always a dog. Common reasons for a service animal include blindness, wheelchair-bound individuals, or 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. Emotional support animals have more restrictions in public spaces. Both, however, 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 a service/emotional support animal but there is not an obvious disability, you may ask the tenant for written verification.

As of 2020, there needs to be a relationship or connection between the disability and the need for the support animal. The written letter needs to state that the person in question is required to have said support animal due to a specified condition or purpose. 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.)
  • Self-verification

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 2020, HUD has stated that unofficial certificates from third-party providers will not be an acceptable form of verification. The group or individual that provides verification must know the individual with the support animal in some way. For more information regarding these new law changes, you can review the HUD Notice FHEO-2020-01 here

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. They will be required to provide their verification letter as their reason. 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. They do, however, need to be registered/certified as a service animal. Emotional support animals do not require training.

Can any animal be a support animal?

No. Clarified in January 2020 (FHEO-2020-01), reptiles (excluding turtles) and exotic animals are not acceptable support animals. 

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.


For more helpful tips for landlords, download our free guide to being a successful landlord in San Diego! 

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