While landlords are usually free to allow, or ban pets from their rentals, and are well within their rights to do so, there’s one very important exception to this rule that landlords should know about: assistance animals.
When it comes to the issue of service animals and emotional support animals (ESAs), landlords should note that these animals are exempt from no-pets policies. The reason is simple: these animals are not considered to be pets, but rather necessary aids for someone who has a disability. Because they don’t fall under the category of pets, landlords should make every effort to accommodate a reasonable request from a tenant who has a disability and allow these animals in their units. Landlords should also waive any pet rent or additional security deposits that they would normally require for pets.
When leasing their homes, some homeowners may feel concerned –that there’s room to exploit this system and attempt to smuggle pets in under the guise of service animals or emotional support animals; there’s no need for alarm. While a landlord is required to make reasonable accommodations for requests from people with disabilities, they also have rights to screen requests to ensure legitimacy.
If you’re a landlord –and wondering how you should treat requests for service animals or emotional support animals, read on. In this guide we’ll explore the difference between pets, service dogs, and emotional support animals; and see what your obligations –and rights are as a landlord.
Defining What Roles Animals Play
First, let's look at the three different categories of animals; and see the difference between pets, service animals, and emotional support animals.
- Pets-Any domestic or tamed animal that’s kept for companionship or pleasure is considered to be a pet. Tenants with pets are not afforded any special protection under Fair Housing Guidelines, and landlords can choose whether to allow a pet in their rentals. They can also choose to implement requirements for pets –such as obedience training, up-to-date vaccinations, a clean bill of health from their veterinarian, and requiring the animal to be spayed or neutered. They can also impose breed restrictions as well as weight restrictions; such as no pets over 30 pounds. In most states, landlords can also charge a pet deposit –a form of a security deposit for a pet, as well as charge a pet rent each month. Colorado state law doesn’t have any statute on pet fees or pet deposits. If you’re outside of Colorado, though, be sure to check your own state laws before charging a pet rent or pet deposit.
- Service Animals- A service animal, under Colorado law, is a dog or even a miniature horse that has been trained to do work or perform specific tasks for a person with a disability. The most well-known form of service dog is Seeing Eye® dog, but service dogs can be trained to assist with a number of disabilities. For example, they can pull a wheelchair, alert a person before they have a seizure, or even calm a person who suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The definition of a service animal can apply to, but are not limited to the following:
- Guiding an individual who is blind or has low vision
- Alerting an individual who is deaf or hard of hearing to sounds
- Providing protection or rescue assistance
- Alerting an individual to impending seizures
- Pulling a wheelchair
- Fetching items
- Providing emotional support to a person with a disability
The tasks a service dog can perform are not limited to this list; however, the work or task a service dog does must be directly related to the person’s disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states that service dogs are exempt from ‘no-pets’ policies, and may accompany a person with a disability into places that members of the public normally go, including state and local government buildings, businesses and non-profits that are open to the public, and on public transportation. Both the ADA and the Fair Housing Act require landlords to make similar accommodation for these animals, to allow them in units that have no-pets policies in place. This is something that falls under the category of reasonable accommodation, which requires landlords to make every reasonable attempt to accommodate people with disabilities. These animals are also exempt from pet deposits and pet rent, or any other pet-related fees. These animals are also excluded from any restrictions on breed and size.
- Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)-An emotional support animal is an animal, typically a dog or cat but it can include other species, which provides therapeutic benefit to its owner through companionship. The animal provides emotional support and comfort to individuals with psychiatric disabilities and other mental impairments. The main difference between a service dog and an ESA, is that while service dogs have been trained for a specific task, ESAs are not required to undergo any training at all. Unlike a service animal, an emotional support animal is not granted access to places of public accommodation. However, the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) states that an emotional support animal is to be viewed as a “reasonable accommodation” in a housing unit that has a ‘no-pets’ rule for its residents, when an individual requires the animal in order to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the housing. As with service dogs, a landlord should not charge a pet deposit or pet rent for ESAs, and these animals are also excluded from breed and size restrictions.
Handling Requests for an Assistance Animal
When a landlord or housing provider receives a request for a service dog or ESA, they should ask two questions.
- Does the person seeking to use and live with the animal have a disability — i.e., a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities?
- Does the person making the request have a disability-related need for an assistance animal? In other words, does the animal work, provide assistance, perform tasks or services for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provide emotional support that alleviates one or more of the identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability?
A landlord is allowed to verify a tenant or applicant’s need for service dogs or emotional support animal by requiring a letter from the tenant’s doctor or licensed mental health therapist, stating their need for the animal.
However, there are two things that a landlord should avoid doing during the verification process:
- Landlords May Not: Ask for verification when the disability is obvious In the case of a Seeing Eye® dog, for instance, the landlord should not require proof of the tenant’s disability if they are blind. For emotional support animals, or for disabilities that are not immediately obvious, a landlord can require a letter from the doctor.
- Landlords May Not: Ask the tenant’s doctor for information about the tenant’s disability When requesting a letter from the tenant’s doctor, a landlord should take care not to ask for information relating to the tenant’s disability itself, and instead, should only ask for information regarding the tenant’s need for the animal.
The ADA states that the only two questions that may be asked are the following:
- Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
- What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
A request for a service dog or ESA is classified as a reasonable accommodation for a person with a disability. A reasonable accommodation is a change, exception, or adjustment to a rule, policy or practice used in running a community. In most cases, a landlord should be able to make accommodation for a person with a disability and allow them to have a service animal or ESA.
On the other hand, a person with a disability who makes a request for any modifications to the unit or common areas, on the other hand, is considered a reasonable modification. In these cases, the resident is usually responsible for paying for related costs. In practice, though, management may agree to some type of cost sharing with the resident as part of the interactive process expected under the Fair Housing Act.
There are a few exceptions to the Fair Housing Act, and some properties may be considered exempt from providing reasonable accommodation.
- A building with four or fewer units, one of which is owner-occupied
- Single-family homes where the owner does not use a real estate agent to buy or rent the property
- Housing owned by organizations or private clubs that are used for members
Tenants Are Responsible for Their Service Animal or ESA
While landlords are not able to charge a tenant who has a service animal or ESA a pet deposit or pet rent, the tenant can be held responsible for any damage that their animal causes in the unit. Additionally, a landlord can issue a warning and even evict a tenant who has a service animal or ESA if that animal poses a threat to others, disturbs the peace, or causes considerable damage. An assistant animal may not be a nuisance for other tenants.
Different State Laws
It’s important to note that some states have laws that provide broader protection than the ADA. For example, some states may offer protections to trainers of personal assistance animals as well. However, in some cases, a state may have disability discrimination laws that exclude psychiatric service dogs from protection. However, this doesn’t mean that the ADA doesn’t apply in these states. As long as federal law applies the ADA trumps more restrictive state laws.
Importance of Tenants Upholding the Law
Just as landlords must make reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities, tenants must also ensure that they abide by the law as well. Any person who misrepresents the right to an assistance animal would commit a class 2 petty offense.
Tenants Should Make the Request
In most cases, a tenant should first make the request for the animal to the landlord, before obtaining the animal. [Sample letter] While the law doesn’t require it, it’s good practice for this request to be in writing. The request should explain how the reasonable accommodation helps or mitigates symptoms of the disability. The tenant does not need to disclose the disability, but he or she will need to provide documentation from a doctor or other licensed health professional stating that the animal provides emotional support that alleviates one or more of the identified symptoms or effects of an existing disability.
While landlords are allowed to restrict or ban pets from their rentals, when it comes to service animals and ESAs, in most cases, a landlord should make every attempt to accommodate reasonable requests from tenants who have a disability. For emotional support animal requests, or requests for a service animal where the disability may not be obvious, a landlord can require a letter from the tenant’s physician or psychiatrist. If this document is produced, then in most cases, a landlord should allow the animal.
For tenants, all requests for a service animal or ESA should be made to the landlord prior to obtaining the animal. Ideally, this request should be made in writing. If the landlord requires more information on your need for the animal, this can usually be provided in the form of a letter from your doctor or licensed therapist.
Finally, if you’re a landlord who’s wondering how to handle a specific request for a service animal or ESA in your rental consider speaking with an experienced local attorney. A good attorney will be able to inform you of the best course of action for your situation, allowing you to ensure that you stay in compliance with federal, state, and local laws.
Colorado Landlords: for more information on Colorado state law, have a look at some of the landlord-tenant laws that apply to residential units.
Tenants who are looking for help making a service animal or ESA request, here is a sample request letter that you can modify and use to make a request to your landlord.