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

Updated: September 25, 2023

There is a lot of confusion surrounding service animals, emotional support animals, and housing regulations. We’re here to explain how these support animals affect your rental property.

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.

Table of Contents

Service Animals

A service animal is a dog of any size or breed that has received individualized training to perform work or tasks that benefit disabled individuals, including people with physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disabilities. By law, service animals are permitted to accompany disabled individuals where any other public member is allowed to go.

Common reasons for a service animal include:

  • Blindness
  • Deafness
  • 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.

Service animals are working animals and are, therefore, not considered pets. Since 2011, only dogs have been nationally recognized as service animals. Still, the ADA states that miniature horses may also be considered service animals under a separate provision and in exceptional cases.

Service Animal Requirements

While there is no specific legal requirement for the amount or kind of work a service animal must provide, it must be able to perform tasks directly related to their owner’s disability. For example, service animals may alert individuals of seizures, remind their handlers with depression that they need to take medication, or retrieve objects for a person who uses a wheelchair. However, if the dog were to provide comfort with its presence, it would not be considered a service animal by the ADA.

Although some states have broader definitions and qualifications for service animals, most states hold the same requirements for service animals, including:

  • The service animal must be trained to perform a task for a person with a disability, whether it be physical or mental
  • The service animal must always be controlled by its owner or handler. If the handler cannot use a leash or harness, they must be able to control the service animal through other means such as voice or signals.
  • Service animals must be allowed in businesses and non-profit organizations open to the general public, regardless of their pet policy.
  • Service animals are not required to wear specific collars, vests, or identification tags indicating that they are service animals.
  • Handlers of service animals are not required to explain their disability, show medical documentation or show training documentation for their service animal. Additionally, staff members of commercial establishments or businesses can only ask what service the animal provides and whether the service animal is required for a disability.

Service animals in California

California defines a service animal as a dog only (in some cases, miniature horses may be considered). In California, dogs trained to help a person with a mental disability are considered service animals. This means that California does not define “psychiatric service dogs” differently than service animals. In fact, California utilizes two definitions of disability, including mental and physical disability (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 2, § 11065 (2022).):
  • A mental disability can be a mental or psychological disorder or condition that severely impedes a person’s quality of life and activity (emotional illness, learning disabilities, post-traumatic stress disorder, and cognitive disabilities)
  • A physical disability can be any disorder or condition that limits a person’s motility, life activity, and major body systems.

In addition to allowing service animals in places where the general public is allowed to be, California also enables individuals with disabilities to take their service animals to medical facilities (hospitals, clinics, clinician offices, etc.) and onto any public vehicles regardless of whether they are public or private (trains, buses, streetcars, boats, motor vehicles).

While dogs in training are not considered service animals by the ADA, the California Disabled Persons Act permits trainers or persons with disabilities to bring dogs-in-training to any public place as long as they are being trained to provide services related to a disability in that public space. The state of California also allows the handlers themselves to train their service animal.

Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)

Emotional support animals (ESAs) are companion animals that provide support, comfort, and assistance to individuals with emotional or mental disabilities, such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress (PTSD). In general, emotional support animals provide individuals with a better quality of life through companionship and comfort rather than providing services or performing tasks for their handler.

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.

Emotional support animal requirements

A pet may be classified as an emotional support animal with a written letter from a licensed healthcare professional (a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist). The pet owner must be clinically assessed to have a mental, emotional, or psychiatric disability for which effects may be alleviated with the presence of an animal.
  • Emotional support animals are not required to be trained to perform specific tasks that aid a person with their disability.
  • Although emotional support animals do not require specific training, they are still expected to be docile, not threaten others, and show good behavior.
  • The ADA does not recognize Emotional support animals as service animals and are therefore not granted the same legal rights as service animals. However, owners of emotional support animals still have rights protected by federal laws in every state.
  • Emotional support animals can be any type of pet, such as dogs, cats, rabbits, etc.
  • Emotional support animals are referenced by the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), which illustrates a person’s right to have emotional support animals at home and during travel.

Emotional Support Animals California

The laws in California do not provide emotional support animals with the same protection as service animals in public places. However, California does protect a person’s right to keep an emotional support dog with them in their homes and in some cases, in their workplace. Compared to service animals, California imposes the following restrictions on emotional support animals:
  • Individuals with disabilities cannot bring emotional support animals to all public places.
  • Unlike service animals, emotional support animals cannot be granted access to public areas that do not allow pets.
  • California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act requires landlords to allow a person with a disability to live with their emotional support animal in a rented apartment or home, regardless of their pet policies.

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.) 
  • 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. 

Do landlords have to accept emotional support animals?

Yes. Federal and State law prohibits landlords and housing providers from rejecting or discriminating against people with disabilities and any accommodations they may require. These accommodations include a service animal or an emotional support animal.

The only circumstances in which landlords can deny emotional support or service animals include:

  • When the emotional support animal is dangerous or have a history of attacking others
  • If the emotional support animal infringes on rights of other tenants by causing allergies
  • When housing the emotional support animal is physically impossible or difficult (particularly in small units or if the animal is particularly large)
  • When the tenant’s letter from their mental health provider is expired, although landlords may be flexible in allowing tenants to update their documents

Are emotional support animals service animals?

Emotional support animals are not considered service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Unlike emotional support animals (any kind of animal), service animals (dogs and sometimes miniature horses) are specifically and individually trained to perform tasks for people with either mental or physical disabilities.

Can you ask for proof of a service dog?

Landlords and employees of public spaces in California cannot ask for proof of a service dog, a person’s disability or request that the service dog perform a task. To verify a service animal in California and most states, landlords may ask the two following questions:
  1. Is your animal a service animal?
  2. What tasks has the animal been trained to perform?

Emotional support animal documentation

Individuals with non-apparent disabilities may be asked for documentation regarding their emotional support animal, including their emotional support animal (ESA) letter from a licensed professional who has professionally assessed that they require animal assistance.

AB 468

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.
good life pet guarantee infographic

Good Pet Guarantee

Good Life Property Management offers a pet guarantee program for their rental properties. Here is some information on their Good Pet Guarantee program:
  • The Good Pet Guarantee program reimburses damages caused to the home above normal wear and tear up to $3,000 total, at no additional cost to the owner
  • The Good Pet Guarantee is specific to Good Life Property Management and does not apply to other property management companies or landlords.
  • The program is designed to encourage pet-friendly rentals and provide pet owners peace of mind.
  • Good Life Property Management also offers a satisfaction guarantee for property management services, which refunds up to one year of paid monthly management fees if the client is unhappy with the service in the first year.

Common Questions Regarding Service Animals

In California, landlords are subject to state and federal laws regarding emotional support animals (ESAs). Under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) and California state law, landlords are generally required to make reasonable accommodations for tenants with disabilities, including those who have ESAs. Therefore, in most cases, a landlord cannot deny a tenant’s request to have an emotional support animal if the tenant meets certain criteria.
No, apartment landlords or management companies are not allowed to charge monthly pet fees, deposits, or extra rent for emotional support animals.
Under California law, landlords are not allowed to charge for a pet deposit for emotional support animals.

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, landlords cannot deny an emotional support dog based on breed, size, or weight. The Fair Housing Act (FHA) requires landlords to make reasonable accommodations for tenants with disabilities, including those who require an emotional support animal.

No, landlords cannot require documentation for a service dog in California. Asking for documentation is only acceptable with regards to emotional support animals if a person’s disability is not visibly apparent.
No, landlords cannot charge extra rent or pet fees for emotional support animals.
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.

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. 

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.

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. 

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.

Yes, tenants are responsible for property damage caused by their service or assistance animals to the same extent that they are responsible for damages they caused themselves. While landlords cannot charge a pet fee or deposit, a tenant’s general security deposit may be used to pay for damage caused by their service or assistance animals.
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When screening your tenants, you may run across an applicant who notes that they have an assistance animal. Whether it’s an emotional support animal or a 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 and additional assistance to people with disabilities. Hi, I’m Brandon with Good Life Property Management and today we’re going to talk about the difference between emotional support animals and service animals and what your rights are as a landlord in regards to them. As a reminder, please check with your attorney regarding all matters pertaining to assistance animals. Our advice is general, in nature, and should not be relied upon without checking with your attorney. Before we jump in, don’t forget to give this video a like and subscribe to our channel for more awesome content just like this. First, let’s review what a service animal is. Service animals are animals that have been trained to assist a person, often with something physical. A service animal is always a dog. Common reasons for a service animal include blindness, deafness, assisting wheelchair-bound individuals and being prone to seizures. You might recognize a service animal by the best they are wearing, usually labeled service dog, or something similar to that. You are not allowed to ask a person what their disability is or ask that their animal demonstrate how it’s a service animal. Service animals do not need to be certified or registered anywhere. Now that we’ve established what a service animal is, let’s talk about emotional support animals. Emotional support animals also called ESAs are therapeutic animals and are there to provide support for those that suffer from things like post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, etc. They are most often a cat or a dog, but a wide variety of animals can be considered in ESA. You cannot ask a person why they have an emotional support animal. You can, however, request documentation such as a letter from their 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 as well. There is not an 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. 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 to live inside the home. 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 Shrew Housing Office receives, and it’s very unlikely that things are going to work out in your favor. You could end up having to pay heavy fees for unreasonably denied service animals. As of January 1st, 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, VES, etc. from misleading people into thinking that the 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 for certificates, ID cards, and VES. 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 a specific set of requirements. For the full list of requirements, check out our corresponding blog post below. In that wraps up today’s video. We hope you’re able to identify and clarify the differences between service animals and emotional support animals. As always, we recommend talking to your attorney regarding specific questions and situations. I’m Brandon, that’s Olivia behind the camera, and we’ll see you next time.