Ever hear the one about the emotional support peacock that wasn’t allowed on a plane? That sounds like a setup to a bad joke (or dad joke), but it’s actually a true story that made national news. Go figure. You’ve probably heard of emotional support animals, but you might not know that they aren’t just dogs and cats. They can be ferrets, fish, pigs, peacocks—almost anything a qualifying owner wants.
So, what are they really? Who qualifies for one, and what are the owner’s rights? The answers to these questions are important. If the animal is why you turn away a rental applicant, you could be charged with housing discrimination. Here’s what landlords need to know about emotional support animals.
What is an emotional support animal?
Emotional support animals exist primarily for the comfort of the owner. They don’t need to have special traits or perform work. They are there to help their human feel better. Many of these animals are trained to perform certain tasks, but it’s not required.
Who qualifies for one?
It’s easy to define an emotional support animal, but it’s harder to explain who qualifies for one.
People with some disorders or disabilities may be able to get a support animal. These disorders include learning disabilities, anxiety, depression, intellectual disabilities, attention deficit disorder and motor skills disorders.
Don’t let the “peacock on a plane” story fool you. Emotional support animals perform critical, even life-saving services.
Only a licensed mental health professional can get someone an emotional support animal. A therapist, psychiatrist or psychologist needs to write an official letter of permission.
The support animal must be prescribed as part of a treatment plan for the patient. For instance, a support animal that is prescribed to someone with depression must be part of that person’s treatment plan for depression. A patient does not qualify for a support pet simply because they have depression. A health professional will make that call.
What are the tenant’s rights?
It’s good to ask questions about emotional support animals and the rights of the people who own them. As a landlord, you must allow them to bring their pet into any vacant unit, even if you have a no-pet policy.
Here are a few more important facts about renting to tenants with support animals:
- It is illegal to charge a pet deposit fee for the animal, but property damage may be charged through a standard security deposit.
- Dog breed restrictions that apply to other tenants do not apply to those with support animals.
- Landlords who deny an application due to the presence of a support animal can be sued for housing discrimination.
- Owners must still clean up after support pets, provide good care, etc.
- Landlords may not ask tenants about their disabilities or disorders. They are allowed to see the healthcare professional’s letter, but that’s about it as far as the law is concerned.
Can a support animal ever be denied?
Wild, exotic or disease-carrying animals do not qualify under emotional support guidelines. Landlords can deny emotional support animals if there is good reason to believe the animal poses a threat to the general public.
Dog breeds like Rottweilers and pit bulls are sometimes restricted in pet policies. However, these restrictions do not apply to emotional support dogs. Therefore, virtually all domesticated cat and dog breeds qualify.
Wolves and raccoons, which are not domesticated species, are considered dangerous and do not count as support pets. Do not let wolves and raccoons into your apartments, people!
Faking certification is a crime
Some landlords worry they will fall victim to fake letters of certification. Unfortunately, this feeds into the idea that the “emotional support” title is just a way to get around restrictive rules.
This is tricky territory, because the law is very clear on this subject. Landlords may not ask specific questions about a tenant’s disability or disorder. This can make it hard to spot a fake.
Some state lawmakers, including those in Montana and Florida, are trying to crack down on fake service animals. We encourage you to familiarize yourself with the laws around this issue. Always ask to see a health professional’s official letter. Once it is presented, you can research the health professional to make sure the letter is legitimate.
We encourage you to familiarize yourself with the laws around this issue. Always ask to see a health professional’s official letter. Once it is presented, you can research the health professional to make sure the letter is legitimate. Do not express doubt to the applicant. Assume they are honest unless you can prove otherwise.
Other tenants may get jealous
Your other tenants might not think it’s fair that one renter gets a pet while others don’t. However, it’s not your fault if someone is upset about the law. Kindly explain the law to them as best you can, but there’s no need to give in to any demands or change your pet policies.
Emotional support animals are not service animals
Some people think emotional support animals are the same as service animals. They’re not, and the difference matters for legal purposes. Service animals are almost always dogs. They are trained to perform work-related tasks that disabled individuals are unable to do themselves. This includes opening doors, barking when the phone rings, detecting a seizure before it happens, etc.
People with service animals have the same rights as those with emotional support animals—more, in fact. They can go virtually anywhere with their human, without restriction. There are some restrictions on support animals, such as restaurants that do not allow pets. Service animals may enter these spaces, but emotional support animals may not.
Just as it is illegal to pretend a non-prescribed house pet is an emotional support animal, it is against the law to “disguise” a support animal as a service animal.
Please note that this article does not constitute or replace legal advice. We hope this information is helpful, and we encourage you to do more research on the subject.