Never heard the one on the emotional support peacock was that not allowed on an airplane? If that sounds like a bad joke setup, it’s actually a real story that made national news.
You’ve probably heard of Emotional Support Animals (ESAs), but you might not know they’re not just dogs and cats. They can be ferrets, fish, pigs, peacocks – almost anything an eligible owner wants.
So what are they really? Who is eligible and what are the owner’s rights? The answers to these questions are important. If the animal is the reason you are turning down a rental applicant, you could be charged with housing discrimination. Here’s what owners 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 any special traits or perform a job. They just make you feel better. Many of these animals are trained to perform certain tasks, but again, this is not necessary.
Consider this: 20% of tenants have an emotional support animal.
That’s one in five candidates!
It is not known whether this number will increase significantly due to the stress of COVID-19. However, the extended duration of the pandemic could mean more people are turning to AES, and property managers would be wise to be aware of this trend and prepare accordingly. We don’t fully know how the pandemic will affect mental health in the long term, but property managers can help by adopting AES.
Who is eligible?
It’s easy to define an emotional support animal, but it’s harder to explain who is eligible.
Individuals with diagnosed disorders or disabilities may be eligible for a support animal. These disorders include learning disabilities, anxiety, depression, intellectual disabilities, attention deficit disorder, and movement disorders.
Don’t be fooled by the story of the ‘peacock on a plane’. Emotional support animals provide essential, even life-saving services.
How does someone get an ESA?
Only a licensed mental health professional can provide someone with an emotional support animal. A therapist, psychiatrist or psychologist must write an official authorization letter.
Patients are prescribed support animals as part of their treatment plan. For example, a support animal that is prescribed for a person with depression should be part of that person’s treatment plan for depression. A patient is not necessarily eligible for a pet just because they have depression. A healthcare professional will make this call.
What are the tenant’s rights?
It’s good to ask questions about emotional support animals and the rights of those who own them. As the owner, you must allow residents to bring their AES into their accommodation, even if you have a no pets policy.
Here are some more important facts about renting to tenants with support animals:
- It is illegal to charge pet deposit fees for the animal, but property damage can be charged via a standard security deposit.
- Dog breed restrictions that apply to other renters do not apply to those with support animals.
- Owners who decline a request due to the presence of a support animal may be sued for discrimination in housing.
- Owners should always clean up after pets, provide proper care, etc.
- Landlords cannot ask tenants about specific disabilities or conditions. You have the right to see the letter from the healthcare professional, but that’s about all as far as the law is concerned.
Can a support animal ever be refused?
Wild, exotic, or disease-carrying animals are not eligible for emotional support guidelines. Owners may refuse emotional support to 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 breeds of domestic cats and dogs are eligible.
Wolves and raccoons, which are not domesticated species, are considered dangerous and do not count as support pets. Don’t let wolves and raccoons enter your apartments, folks!
Falsifying ESA certification is a crime
Some homeowners are concerned about falling victim to bogus certification letters. Unfortunately, this fuels the idea that the title “emotional support” is just a way around restrictive rules.
It is a delicate territory because the law is very clear on this subject. Landlords cannot ask specific questions about a tenant’s disability or disorder. This can make it difficult to detect 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 relating to this problem. Always ask to see the official letter from a healthcare professional. Once it is presented, you can search for the medical professional to make sure the letter is legitimate.
Do not express any doubts with the requester. Assume they are being honest unless you can prove otherwise.
Other tenants can get jealous
Your other tenants might not think it’s fair for one tenant to receive a pet when others don’t. However, it is not your fault if someone is upset with the law. Please explain the law to them as best you can, but there is no need to give in to demands or change your pet’s policies.
AES are not service animals
About 7% of tenants have a service animal. Some people think emotional support animals are the same service animals. This is not the case, and the distinction is important for legal purposes. These animals are dogs (unlike ASEs, which can be any pet), and they are trained to perform work-related tasks that people with disabilities are not able to do on their own.
- Doors openning
- Barking when the phone rings
- Detect a seizure before it happens
- Guide the visually impaired
- Perform 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 allow pets?
From 2020, 76% of property managers allow pets in their properties. However, 92% of the pro-animal properties maintain restrictions on pets, including weight, size and type of animal allowed.
Such restrictions exist to prevent property damage, but they don’t always work the way property managers think. For example, many property managers and owners believe that large 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 large dogs. This results in loud barking / whining, scratched floors and walls, and other “accidents” that can damage property.
Keep reading: What is the best pet policy for property managers?
Another case to allow pets in your properties
If you simply allow pets, you no longer have to worry about collecting ESA documents, checking them, and dealing with complaints from residents who don’t think you are being fair to them (even if you are). You can also charge pet deposits and additional rent per pet. Additionally, you may be able to charge more for rent if you provide pet amenities such as washing stations, play areas, dog daycare, etc.
Professional advice: Yardi Breeze makes it easy to update your pet policy in your lease. You can also use the platform to set up and manage animal depots, damage, animal related maintenance, etc.
In some cases, it is not possible to allow pets on your property, or the decision may be beyond your reach. Be transparent with your residents about why you can’t allow pets. If you can’t authorize them for insurance reasons, for example, let your community know. When you provide specific reasons for your actions, you build a trusting relationship with your tenants (even if they don’t like the outcome).
Please note that this article does not constitute or replace legal advice. We hope you find this information useful and encourage you to further your research on the subject.