The Property Owner’s Guide to Emotional Support and Service Animals

Golden Retriever wearing Service Dog vest.

For rental property owners, the issue of support and service animals can be confusing. More people than ever before are claiming that their pets are emotional support animals, leaving everyone from airlines to rental property owners to figure out how to handle it. Part of the confusion stems from the fact that under federal law, both emotional support animals and service animals are afforded certain accommodations. But there are also distinct differences between the two, especially as the issue relates to rental housing. Even if you allow your tenants to have pets, there is a lot you still need to know about how to handle a tenant’s emotional support animal or service animal. In this guide, we’ll go over the basics of emotional support and service animals and what to do when a tenant makes a request.

Emotional Support Animal or Service Animal: What’s the Difference?

There is a popular misconception that emotional support animals and service animals are the same. But the fact is that the two are very different. As a rental property owner, it’s important to understand what these differences are and how they may impact your lease.

An emotional support animal is technically more than just a pet. To be legally considered an emotional support animal, a person would need a prescription for the animal provided by a licensed mental health professional. In other words, an animal is only an emotional support animal if a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist has determined that the presence of the animal is needed for the mental health of the patient. While the emotional support animal cannot go everywhere (restaurants, for example), individuals with a prescribed emotional support animal are provided certain accommodations for things like airplane travel and rental homes.

A service animal, on the other hand, is an animal (usually a dog, but not always) that has been specially trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities. For example, a dog trained to guide someone who is blind, pull a wheelchair, calm a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or alert and protect a person who is having a seizure, are all examples of tasks that a service animal may perform. According to federal law, a service animal is not a pet. The service animal may be taken anywhere the general public is allowed to go, in part because the disabled person relies on the animal at all times.

Support and Service Animals and Pet Policies

Because a service dog is not considered a pet, they are exempt from all rental pet policies. If a tenant can provide the correct documentation (usually a signed letter from a mental health professional), their emotional support animal is also exempt. For this reason, whether you have a no-pet policy for your rental or not, it is a violation of federal law to refuse to rent to someone with either an emotional support animal or a service animal.

Handling Support and Service Animal Requests

When a tenant makes a request for a support or service animal, it’s best to respond quickly and in accordance with the law. In most cases, as long as the tenant has proper documentation, you should treat their claim as legitimate. Still, there are a few key things to know after getting a request for a support or service animal. These include:

  • Read through and understand the guidelines provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for support and service animals in rental properties.
  • Prepare in advance how you will modify or make exceptions to your pet policy if a tenant makes a request.

For service animals, if it is “readily apparent” that the animal performs a vital function for your tenant, you may ask 2 questions:

    • Is the animal required because of a disability? and
    • What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?
    • If the answer to question 1 is “yes” and work or a task is identified in question 2, you must then grant the tenant’s request.

For emotional support animals, you may ask for a signed letter from a mental health professional that explains the tenant’s need for the animal.

  • For a support animal, you may also assess the reasonableness of the tenant’s request. If the request is reasonable and within your power to grant, you should do so.
    • Part of determining whether the tenant’s request is reasonable includes the type of animal they want to keep in the home. According to HUD, if the support animal is one commonly kept in households, such as a dog, cat, small bird, rabbit, hamster, fish, turtle, and so on, the regulations state that you should grant the tenant’s request.
    • Reptiles, barnyard animals, monkeys, or other non-domesticated or unique animals are not considered common household animals and you may have more leeway to deny a request unless the tenant can provide proof of a specific, disability-related therapeutic need for the specific animal or specific type of animal.

No matter what type of animal your tenant wants or which category it belongs to, service or support or otherwise, DO NOT ask for documentation of the tenant’s disability or ask for their medical history. You also may not contact the tenant’s health care provider (mental health care provider, in this case) without the tenant’s written permission to do so.

A tenant’s request for a service or emotional support animal has the potential to make any property owner feel nervous. But by knowing and following these guidelines, you should be able to better navigate a tenant’s request and confidently lease your property.

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