Emotional Support Animals: What Property Managers Should Know

Emotional support animal wearing shirt with cute pin

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, pig — almost any pet can qualify (under the right circumstances). The big takeaway is that property managers need to be open to these animals being on the property.

This article covers a lot of territory, but there are a few key topics:

  • What are emotional support animals?
  • Who qualifies for one?
  • What are the animal owner’s rights?
  • What are your rights?

The answers to these questions are important. If a qualifying support animal is the reason you turn away a rental applicant, you could be charged with housing discrimination. Here’s what property managers need to know about emotional support animals.

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What is an emotional support animal?

Emotional support animals exist primarily for the comfort of their 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.

ESAs are not service animals

Some people think emotional support animals are the same as service animals. They’re not, and the distinction matters for legal purposes. Service animals are less common. Data shows that only 7% of renters have a qualifying service animal. These animals are almost always dogs (as opposed to ESAs, which can be any qualifying pet), and they’re trained to perform work-related tasks that disabled individuals are unable to do themselves.

Such tasks include:

  • Opening doors
  • Barking when the phone rings
  • Detecting a seizure before it happens
  • Guiding those with visual impairments
  • Performing other basic tasks (e.g., getting the newspaper)

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.

Who qualifies for an ESA?

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 services. (And they don’t need special training to do their part.)

How does someone get an ESA?

A licensed mental health professional can legally approve an emotional support animal. That means a doctor, therapist, psychiatrist or psychologist can 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 important to ask questions about emotional support animals and understand the rights of the people who own them. As a rental housing provider, 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 an ESA, but property damage caused by an ESA may be charged through a standard security deposit. 
  • Dog breed restrictions that apply to other tenants do not apply to those with support animals.
  • Rental housing providers who deny an application due to the presence of a support animal can be sued for housing discrimination.
  • ESA owners must still clean up after support pets, provide adequate care, etc.
  • Rental housing providers 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 an ESA ever be denied?

Wild, exotic or disease-carrying animals do not qualify under emotional support guidelines. Emotional support animals can be denied 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. 

Animals such as wolves and raccoons, which are not domesticated species, are considered dangerous and do not count as support pets.

Detecting support animal fraud

Faking ESA certification is a crime. Some rental housing providers worry they will fall victim to fake letters of certification. Unfortunately, this concern feeds into the idea that the “emotional support” title is just a way to get around the rules of the property. 

This is tricky territory because the law is very clear on this subject. You may not ask specific questions about a tenant’s disability or disorder. You may feel like your hands are tied, which can make it hard to spot a fake. The best you can do is familiarize yourself with the laws around this issue.

Know your rights

Always ask to see a health professional’s official letter. Once it is presented, you can research or contact the health professional to make sure the letter is legitimate.

Do not express any doubts to the applicant. Assume they are honest unless you can prove otherwise.

Petscreening.com has some tips for spotting fraudulent ESA applications:

  • The healthcare professional who allegedly signed the letter claims to have never done so
  • Dates on the signed letter appear to have been changed
  • There are other issues, such as misspellings or names being presented inconsistently
  • The letter addresses an animal that is different than what the applicant has shown you

What to tell other tenants when you have a no-pet policy

Your other tenants might not think it’s fair that another renter gets to keep an animal on the premises. However, it’s not your fault if someone is upset about the law. Kindly explain your pet policy to them as best you can, but there’s no need to give in to any demands.

It also helps to make your pet policy easy to find online. This way, you can refer residents to the website after you’ve answered their questions. It’s a polite way to end the conversation and encourage the resident to review your policies.

There’s something you should NEVER say

Never discuss another renter’s disability status. It’s always safe to say, “There is a resident here who is entitled to their animal.” No further explanation is required. In fact, saying more might land you in hot water with the law.

Is it better to just allow pets?

Service and support animals are not pets. For that reason, an open pet policy can resolve many of the issues detailed in this article before they begin. Given how many pet owners there are, it’s certainly something to consider.

Indeed, property managers are generally accommodating to pet owners. About 76% of property managers allow pets at their properties. Having said that, 92% of pet-friendly 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. The truth is that small dogs can be more anxious than big dogs, which can result in noisy barking/whining, scratched-up flooring and walls and other behaviors that can damage the property or upset the community.

Keep reading: What is the best pet policy for property managers?

Another case for allowing pets at your properties

If you allow a wide range of pets, you may not 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.

Use property management software to note service animals

Yardi Breeze and Yardi Breeze Premier make 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. When applying online, prospects can specify if a pet is a service animal, and if it has been spayed or neutered. This information is then shown in Breeze or Breeze Premier on the prospectscreen. If needed, it can be entered there on the prospect’s behalf. 

The following animal filters are built in:

  • Type     
  • Weight 
  • Age       
  • Color    
  • Name   
  • Breed   
  • Gender
  • Spayed or neutered        
  • Service animal

Keep track of the pets and support animals on your property with as much relevant detail as possible. That will help you provide a fair, safe environment for all your residents.

Do what’s best for your community & your office

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, 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).

The last thing you want is for your own office staff to be distracted by complex ESA paperwork and follow-up. No one is in this line of work to be on calls with healthcare providers and lawyers all day long.

You may not be willing or able to make your property as pet friendly as some would like. Simply being open-minded and accommodating to ESAs will make a big difference for you, your residents and your team.


Please note that this article does not constitute or replace legal advice. We hope this information is helpful, and we encourage you to do your own research on the subject.