A.D. Thompson
service animal dog with vest

Many animal lovers tout the mental-health benefits of owning a pet, but legally speaking, there is a difference between the emotional support your dog’s presence might provide and that of an actual emotional-support animal.

The good news for renters who fall into this demographic is that emotional support animal housing laws are covered in the Fair Housing Act (FHA).

Under the FHA, landlords are required to make what’s called a “reasonable accommodation” to allow pets who serve as assistance animals, which includes animals who provide emotional support.

Assistance animals are classified differently than regular pets. They work, whether assisting their humans with performing physical tasks or providing emotional support that improves the symptoms of a disability. For these reasons, pet fees and even “no pets” policies, are often waived.

Service vs. assistance animals

The term “service animal” is often used to cover both service and assistance animals, which often causes confusion. An assistance animal – which can be just about any type of animal – provides companionship, relieves loneliness and sometimes helps with depression, anxiety and certain phobias, but they do not have special training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities. Per the Humane Society, it’s the emotional benefits the animal’s owner enjoys, and a letter from a medical doctor or therapist, that classifies the animal as such.

A service animal, on the other hand, is just that – an animal that has been formally trained to provide a service for their owner. As mentioned above, a seeing-eye dog is a service animal. Other examples include animals that have been trained to open doors or can assist a hearing-impaired person to navigate sounds. In either scenario, the animals are covered under the FHA.

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Landlords can’t ask until you do

According to the FHA, landlords are not permitted to ask potential tenants about any type of disability. However, if you request a reasonable accommodation for a service or support animal, you may be asked to provide written certification that you or someone in your family has a disability, that there is a need for a support animal to aid with that disability and the way in which the animal helps improve the symptoms.

While pet fees and rent will be waived if your animal is approved, you may still be on the hook.

According to the Humane Society, the landlord can charge a security deposit and may seek compensation for any damages the animal causes in the unit. Property managers also have the right to attempt to remove an assistance or support animal through legal proceedings if it becomes a nuisance.

Exceptions to the rule

While most rental units are subject to the rules laid out in the Fair Housing Act, there are a few exceptions that don’t have to adhere. Most include smaller complexes or are based on the ownership of the units. Do your research before you start looking for a place to live and make sure you and your landlord are in agreement before you sign a lease.

If you do feel you and your service animal are being discriminated against, you can file a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and they will investigate your claim.

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About The Author

A.D. Thompson

A.D. Thompson spent the first half of her 25-year career behind the editor’s desk, including time at Playgirl Magazine. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Orlando Sentinel and a host of other publications, print and online. Now a full-time freelancer, she is the Orlando expert for USA Today’s 10Best.com and writes about everything from Mickey Mouse to marijuana-based tourism with equal levels of enthusiasm – and occasional bouts of the munchies.

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