The following is the three categories of animals you may (or may not) need to accommodate in your rental property:
- Pets: allow or not
- Service animals: reasonable accommodation
- Emotional support animals: a legal gray area
Pets: a simple yes or noIf you decide to allow pets, you can still restrict certain types or sizes of animals. Be sure to specify in your lease — and in your listing — exactly which kinds of pets and how many are accepted at your property. Something like “two cats,” “one dog” or “one dog under 50 pounds.”
You can also require that you meet and approve the pet first. And, if your jurisdiction permits it, you can require an additional deposit to cover damages to your property caused by the animal. You can create a separate pet agreement or spell out any other rules in your lease. For example, you can require that dogs and cats be licensed, spayed or neutered, and current on vaccinations.
One thing to keep in mind: Some insurance companies and homeowners associations have breed restrictions or other pet rules, so check before updating your rental agreement.
You can also not allow pets — just be explicit about it in your listing and in your lease.
But, what about the animals who are not pets but service or support animals? As a landlord, what does your animal policy need to be legally?
Service animals: reasonable accommodationService animals are not pets — they’re assistants to people with disabilities. Service animals are usually dogs but can also be a miniature horse. These animals are specially trained to perform disability-related tasks, such as guiding a person who is blind, pulling a wheelchair, alerting an owner to an impending seizure, performing complex household tasks, protecting their companions from oncoming traffic and even providing a calming influence for sufferers of autism or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Registered service animals, as defined by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are generally required to complete a complex and diversified training program, typically beginning in puppyhood and lasting at least two years. Upon completion of this training, the animal must also be certified by the state regulatory agency. Then the animal is granted “public access,” meaning, “State and local governments, businesses and nonprofit organizations that serve the public generally must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of the facility where the public is normally allowed to go,” according to the ADA.
Even if you have a no-pets policy, the federal Fair Housing Act prohibits you from refusing to rent to someone with a disability who has a service animal. As a landlord, you must provide reasonable accommodation to anyone who wants to rent your property and has a service animal — or anyone who develops a need for one while they are your tenant.
A request is reasonable if it is relatively easy and inexpensive to implement. If a tenant asks you to install bars in the shower, that is a reasonable accommodation request. If they request a whole new bathroom, that is not. Allowing a service animal, even though you have a no-pets policy, is a reasonable accommodation to make.
Remember, to stay compliant with fair housing laws, you may not ask any question you wouldn’t ask every single renter or person who views your property. To determine if a service animal request should be granted, you can ask two questions:
- Is the animal required because of a disability?
- What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?
If you believe your tenant or potential tenant does not have a disability or does not have a disability-related need for a service animal, the best thing to do is document the process so you have a record of your interactions, and then check with an experienced attorney before taking any action or refusing any requests.
Emotional support animals: the gray areaEmotional support animals (ESAs) are members of almost any animal species that provide therapeutic benefits for a person with mental and/or emotional disabilities. Unlike service animals, ESAs are not trained to complete a specific task on behalf of their owner. Instead, they provide comfort to their owners.
Legally, landlords must provide reasonable accommodation for emotional support animals if the support animal provides stability for a renter with a documented disability. As a landlord, you can’t ask about their specific disability, but you can ask for a letter stating that a health care professional recommended or prescribed an ESA.
The bottom line? Before you make any final decisions about your animal policies, check with a local attorney who is well-versed in this subject.