You’ve probably heard of emotional support animals (ESAs), but you might not know that they aren’t just dogs and cats. They can be ferrets, fish, pigs — almost anything a qualifying owner needs.
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 possess special traits or perform work. They simply make their human feel better. Many of these animals are trained to perform certain tasks, but again, it’s not required.
Consider this: 20% of renters have an emotional support animal.
That’s one in five applicants!
It is unclear if this figure will significantly increase due to stress related to COVID-19. However, the extended length of the pandemic could mean more people turn to ESAs, and property managers would be wise to be aware of this trend and prepare accordingly. We don’t entirely know how the pandemic will affect long-term mental health, but property managers can help by embracing ESAs.
It’s easy to define an emotional support animal, but it’s harder to explain who qualifies for one.
People with diagnosed disorders or disabilities may qualify for a support animal. These disorders include learning disabilities, anxiety, depression, intellectual disabilities, attention deficit disorder and motor skills disorders.
Emotional support animals perform critical, even life-saving services. (And they don’t need special training to do their part.)
How does someone get an ESA?
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.
Patients are prescribed support animals as part of their treatment plan. 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 necessarily qualify for a support pet just 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 residents to bring their ESAs into their unit, even if you have a no-pet policy.
Here are a few more important facts about renting to tenants with support animals:
- It’s illegal to charge a pet deposit fee for the ESA, 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 adequate care, etc.
- Landlords may not ask tenants about specific disabilities or disorders. You 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 ESA 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.
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.
ESAs are not service animals
About 7% of renters have a service animal. Some people think emotional support animals are the same as service animals. They’re not, and the distinction matters for legal purposes. These animals are dogs (as opposed to ESAs, which can be any pet), and they’re trained to perform work-related tasks that disabled individuals are unable to do themselves.
- Opening doors
- Barking when the phone rings
- Detecting a seizure before it happens
- Guiding those with visual impairments
- Performing other basic tasks
Service animals can go virtually anywhere with their human, without restriction. Of course, it is illegal to disguise an emotional support animal as a service animal.
Is it better to just allow pets?
As of 2020, 76% of property managers allow pets at their properties. However, 92% of pro-pet properties retain restrictions on pets including weight, size and the type of animal allowed.
Such restrictions exist to prevent property damage, but they don’t always work out the way property managers think. For instance, many property managers and owners think big dogs are more destructive than small dogs. So, they apply size and weight restrictions or only allow cats. In fact, small dogs are known to be more anxious than big dogs. This results in noisy barking/whining, scratched-up flooring and walls and other “accidents” that can damage the property.
Keep reading: What is the best pet policy for property managers?
Another case for allowing pets at your properties
If you simply allow pets, you no longer have to worry about collecting ESA paperwork, verifying it and dealing with complaints from residents who don’t think you’re being fair to them (even if you are). You can also charge pet deposits and additional rent per pet. Plus, you may be able to charge more for rent if you provide pet amenities such as wash stations, play areas, doggy daycare, etc.
Pro tip: Yardi Breeze makes it easy to update your pet policy in your lease. You can also use the platform to set up and manage pet deposits, damages, pet-related maintenance, etc.
In some cases, it’s impossible to allow pets at your property, or the decision may be out of your hands. Be transparent with your residents about why you can’t allow pets. If you can’t allow them for insurance reasons, for instance, let your community know. When you provide specific reasons for your actions, you build trust with your renters (even if they don’t like the outcome).
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.