What Liability Do You Assume When You Allow Pets In Your Rental Property?

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There has been so much discussion on BiggerPockets about whether or not you should allow pets in your rental property. This is also a topic that comes up frequently at our REIA group.

Some folks feel very strongly (like I once did) that they always end up damaging the property, so they just don’t allow them. Other landlords welcome pets and feel they get better tenants. What I found in my business, was that if the tenant found out you didn’t allow pets and they already had one, they just sneaked it in anyway. In the end, you missed the opportunity to collect pet deposits up front and additional monthly fees for the dog or cat. While these amounts of money rarely took care of all of the damage especially for a short term tenants, they often encouraged good tenants to stay longer if they could bring their pet.

Changes in the Law That Put Landlords at Great Risk

Landlords should all be familiar with the policies of their individual insurance companies regarding dogs and specifically those breeds that are considered to be dangerous. But, here is something that you had better read carefully.

On June 21st of 2012, the Supreme Court of Kentucky put landlords in this state at great risk if they allow pets in their rental property. We had a court case where the tenant owned a Rottweiler, and the dog was kept in an enclosed pen in the back yard. The dog escaped his enclosure and bit an 8 year old boy who was walking through the neighborhood. The mother of this child filed a lawsuit against the landlord and the owner of the dog. There was some dispute between the tenant and the landlord about whether or not the landlord had allowed the dog. However in this case, the landlord lived next to the rental house. The judge took note that regardless of whether or not he had allowed it in the lease; he certainly knew that the dog was on the premises. If you remember, this attack took place off the premises.

The Supreme Court ruled that since the property owner knew that the dog was on the property and did nothing to remove it from the property, the landlord became the owner of the dog under the dog-bite-statute. The court further ruled that if the attack had taken place on the property, the landlord would have been liable for the attack and all of the damages.

How Do You Define Who the Dog’s Owner is?

The Kentucky Supreme Court defined the owner of the dog as, “every person having a right of property in the dog and every person who keeps or harbors the dog, or has it in his care, or permits it to remain in or about the premises owned or occupied by him”.

In this particular case, the landlord was not held liable and was saved by the language used above to determine who the dog’s owner was; specifically the words “on or about” the premises.

However, the court did make a ruling that has a major impact on landlords in the state of Kentucky. The lesson to be learned here is that for legal purposes a landlord can now be the named the owner of a tenant’s dog (as well as the actual owner) and therefore can be held liable for injuries and damages under certain circumstances.

Protecting Yourself from Liability from Tenant Dogs

Here are three steps you should take now to help protect yourself:

  1. If you don’t want to ban dogs completely you should definitely bar the dogs that nave been named vicious breeds. Now we all know that not every one of these dogs is vicious. But if and when they do attack someone, they will do a whole lot more bodily damage than a poodle or cocker spaniel.
  2. Verify with your insurance company which dogs they classify as vicious and therefore are not covered under your homeowner’s policy. Don’t allow these dogs on your property.
  3. Visit your properties unannounced from time to time, and see if there are any pets that you do not expect to find. Be sure to document those visits in a file, just in case you end up in court one day.

Final Thoughts

I got a message from someone on BiggerPockets about a week ago about this very problem. This landlord had just been fined $10,000 for EACH pit bull that lived on the rental property by the Miami Dade County Animal Services. This gal said she had been notified by the neighbors that the dogs were running loose in the neighborhood and they were illegal in that county. This property owner thought she was doing the right thing by calling animal control to help her get rid of the illegal dogs. Apparently at least in this county, you can’t do that. Animal control stated to her that she was the owner of the property and was therefore responsible for the dogs, and issued the fine.

Every landlord should take some time this week and find out for themselves what the laws are in their local counties and states. I can’t imagine that there aren’t a lot more states out there with similar laws.

NOTE: Thanks to Henry “Hank” Schildknecht for informing our local real estate investors group of this complex law, and for breaking it down and making it so easy for the members in our group to understand it. Hank is an attorney and a member of KREIA here in Louisville.

Photo: Cordey

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About Author

Sharon has been investing in real estate since 1998. She owned and operated a successful home inspection company for 17 years. In January of 2008 she took the leap of closing her business to become a full time real estate investor.

52 Comments

  1. Sharon, great topic and article. Thanks for sharing! The legal ramifications are certainly important to understand (and not always clear) when analyzing the pros/cons.

  2. So, if one of my tenets has a dog, and I am legally the owner of the dog- can I sell the dog? Methinks I could earn some extra money selling my tenets expensive thorough-bred dogs :)

    I sure hope the FL landlord appeals the fee.

  3. With a no pets rule that is enforced – no more problems for landlords being held liable for tenant’s animals.

    Dale

    • Hi Dale –

      I used to have that policy, and they always brought the dog in later. The question that now has me thinking, is what if they agree to your pet policy, they bring in a dangerous dog later that you don’t know about and it bites someone. How can you protect yourself from this situation?

  4. Good article Sharon. This is complete BS! Why should the landlord be responsible for any tenant’s animal? I wish the laws would change to hold the right people accountable for their actions. This goes for everything in life not just real estate. The next time someone hits me with their car, I’m going to sue the company they lease their car from. The company should be responsible because it’s their car too.

    • I agree completely Shanequa! It is BS.

      I wish everyone that reads this article would check the laws in their state and see if they have a law similar to this one has been passed. It would be interesting to know.

  5. I’m sure this all came down to who has the money. Since the landlord is perceived to have the money in this case, he/she has become the target of claims. You all know that is why this became a law.

    • I agree Scott. I would love to know how many states have a similar law.

      It would be nice of some of the attorneys out there would address how we can protect ourselves if we own rental property.

  6. Great topic for a write-up, Sharon!

    Many of the professionally managed communities I encounter will not allow vicious animals allowing only small animals and requiring them to be kept inside for the liability reason alone. I tend to see problematic situations with animals more common in communities that are not professionally managed. I think it all boils down to each individual’s and/or company’s risk tolerance. Thanks for sharing!

    p.s. A few weeks ago, I was pounced on by a large dog – I was OK and not hurt. Good thing the owner was around. And, no – this did not occur in a professionally managed community.

    • I’m glad you weren’t hurt Rachel. The real problem is that you can have good leases and good policies, but if the tenants bring in a dangerous dog after the fact you can be in real trouble.

      I agree with you that professionally managed communities especially large apartment complexes with onsite managers generally have better luck with monitoring these types of things. Do you encounter these types of problems in your niche?

      • Thanks Sharon, me too! :)

        No, I don’t really encounter these types of issues in my niche as the communities I work with don’t allow animals to be kept outside, only inside. The communities that allow animals to be kept outside and allow fences are more lenient in terms of the types of people they allow/don’t allow. I think they are taking advantage of the pet niche.

        The communities I work with are more strict with regards to the types of folks and pets they allow – it definitely is less liability. There are differing opinions on this issue so I guess it really depends on each individual’s and/or company’s risk management philosophy.

        Hope that helps!

        p.s. I find the smaller dogs more “feisty” in nature. Though, I have never been hurt by one! :)

        • Small dog syndrome? Small dogs are definitely more vicious-minded- but their small size means they are less formidable and therefore don’t do as much damage. Many of the so called “dangerous breeds” are much more mild mannered, generally speaking- but if they are trained to be vicious or are mistreated, they become a much more serious force to be reckoned with. A landlord has little or no control over a dogs treatment, nor does an insurance company, so they tend to be cautious.

  7. Hey Kelly –

    I would check with your insurance carrier about your covereage, and then find out about the laws for your state. A lot of states have passed new laws this year. Not knowing about the law isn’t an excuse in a judge’s eyes when it comes to these types of things. Better safe than sorry.

  8. @James – You are right. Small dogs generally don’t inflict the level of damage as the ones classified as dangerous breeds do. Some of those small dogs can definitely be more excitable than some of the larger breeds.

  9. Shirley Farrington on

    I was almost attacked by an owners cat. I was showing their condo that they were still living in, and when we were leaving the cat parked it’self infront of the door. I hissed at me and when I took a step forward it jumped at me. I screemed and it went back to the door. We waited a little while and the cat finally walked away from the door. So I don’t like to rent to either cats or dogs. I always went by the rule about no aggressive breeds because of the insurance. And your right the deposit is never enough to cover any damage. Plus I have lost good prospective tenants that had alergies and could smell that a pet was in the home even after a deep cleaning. So it is just not worth it.

    • Shirley – You are the first person I have heard of having an agressive cat. I guess folks need to be aware that some cats can also be agressive. Thanks for letting us know about your experience.

  10. Sharon, Thanks for sharing this great information!

    We have a “no pet policy ” on our SF but a tenants called me recently that she will like to get a pet. I told her about our $250 none refundable pet deposit and monthly pet fee of $30. She later called me back that she is not getting it again. But I have been wondering if she has sneaked it in to the house and is hiding it for me.
    I visited the house recently unannounced to collect the balance of my rent and did not see any pet. My question is how can you tell if there is a pet in the house?

    Secondly, how much are you charging for pet deposit and monthly pet fees ?
    Tracey

    • Tracey-

      My fees were the same as yours. I would check back periodically unannounced. If they have a cat, you should look for signs of a litter box. You really can’t get cat urine out of carpet. You will see evidence of a dog in the yard. You might also look for pet dishes etc.

  11. What do you do when a tenant brings in a vicious breed dog after the lease is signed and claims that the dog is a service dog? I know in the state of PA you can not ask for proof that the dog is a service dog and you can not discriminate against someone for having a service dog. My understanding is that you have to allow the dog to stay? I’ve seen such a case in CO where a girl living in a large apartment building that did not allow dogs got a Rottweiler and applied for service tags… Seems like a liability loophole in the law…

    • Brandon –

      Wow. I think that is a good question for an attorney in your state.That could be a big problem. Do you have an attorney you can call?

      Maybe you could just show them the clause in your insurance documents that states you can’t allow those dogs no matter what the reason because your insurance carrier prohibits it. This kind of sounds like someone that has learned to “work the system”. I would definitely be calling my attorney.

    • Issuing one of the first court verdicts to weigh a conflict between the right of a legally disabled person to keep a companion animal and the duty of landlords to protect tenants from dangerous dogs, U.S. District Judge William Alsup ruled on August 8, 2002, that the San Francisco landlord of Guy Lowe, 38, met the requirements of federal law and the California Fair Employment and Housing Commission by allowing legally disabled persons to keep small dogs, and that Lowe, whose claimed disability is severe depression, acted unreasonably in demanding to keep a pit bull terrier. “The potentially catastrophic consequences of a pit bull attack must be considered, even if the risk of that attack is remote,” Judge Alsup wrote.

      I had a person try to rent from me claiming he required a “companion animal” and presented a note written by a psychiatrist on a prescription pad as proof. I told him I would not accept such flimsy evidence, contacted the psychiatrist and asked if he would state in writing on his letterhead that the person absolutely required the services of a companion animal and if he would be willing to testify to such in court if subpoenaed to do so. The shrink declined — as I knew he would — and I sent the dog freak and his companion animal packing.

  12. Our experience (renting single family homes) since 1996 is that most prospective tenants have or want to acquire one or more animals. Consequently, prohibiting all animals severely limits our market, so we only prohibit the “vicious” kinds, pitts, rotts, german shephards and dob’s. We don’t limit the number allowed, but we do charge for each one: $500 non refundable up front pet fee, plus monthly pet rent of $50 if below the knee and $100 if above the knee for each pet. This seems to limit the number of pets they bring in. (we don’t tell applicants about the fees until we know what kind and number of pets they have). Since we implemented that policy the only problems we have had is tenants sneaking in animals later. Of course, our lease provides if they bring in any unauthorized pets, they are liable for all fees retroactively since the beginning of the lease.

    • Ron –

      Your policy sounds good. I would still check back from time to time to make sure the breeds are acceptable. I also used to find they would “admit” to having one and pay the fees. Later I would find out they had 2 or 3.

  13. Most of us require (by lease) that tenants to carry renters insurance. Unfortunately, few actually enforce it. Ensuring your tenants carry this coverage (and even name you as an “additional insured”) provides a layer of protection as well. That is, their liability coverage on the typical renter’s policy would serve as the primary insurance, if their pet causes harm…

    • I have heard of landlords doing this- but aside from pet liability, is there any other reason for it? In my years as a renter, I had several companies quote me for renters insurance, and I always thought it was way too high compared to the size of risk (I don’t have any pets). (Of course, I don’t own a lot of (or any) expensive things and I’m perfectly happy to replace what I do have second hand- most of it was acquired second hand anyway- not everyone is that way. :)

  14. 60% of property claims are caused by tenant negligence (think candles, cigarettes, etc…). So, even if you don’t think you have a lot, if you cause a fire in one of my properties and don’t have liability coverage to protect you, it won’t be good for you or me…

    Granted, trying to replace even a minimal amount of your “stuff”, isn’t cheap, either.

    • Thanks- I was under the impression that renter’s insurance was to cover personal property, but upon further research, I discovered that most policies have a fire liability coverage if it is the renter’s negligence.

      I do everything I can to prevent a fire- I don’t allow smoking in my home, and I only do candles occasionally and then I take every precaution and only do so under direct supervision. Of course, as a landlord, that may not be much comfort to you.

  15. Yeah, that liability coverage is a really great reason for RE investors to enforce the coverage requirement in their leases as much as possible.

  16. What?

    We have pet policies, fees, and pet rent in place and documents for pet owners to sign. Beyond that, tenants lie. How can we possibly know what they have or if their pets are trained or contained. And, what if the person who was attacked provoked the animal?

    Seriously, something else we could be liable for? What about the drugs tenants are using or selling? Are we responsible? This could go on and on. Ugh.

  17. Great article! This should be a reminder to all landlords to take a look at their insurance policies before allowing a pet into your home. It should also be a warning to those tenants who are trying to sneak an unwelcome pet into a home.

  18. Leave it to Kentucky. In most states, homeowners are not responsible for the actions of their tenants’ animals just as they are not responsible for the actions of the tenants themselves (this is how it should be). However, there appears to be a stigma everywhere about allowing responsible families to keep their family pet.

    I am a military servicemember with a so-called “vicious breed”, who must relocate every 2-3 years and constantly struggles with the challenge of giving up my companion (to a likely fate of either euthanization or dog-fighting) or quitting my job so I can settle at my own non-discriminatory house. Unfortunately landlords only think of the here and now and few if any ponder the optimistic – one animal in the hands of a responsible owner is one less to be bred into violence and aggression.

    Despite raising four kids in my household, holding a $300k liability policy, a great credit score, reliable combined household income, and excellent references, landlords run for the bushes when I mention my dog. Like I would keep a monster around my children?

    If you live in a state that hasn’t drank the cool-aid yet, and would like to learn how to move in the direction of problem solving rather than problem dismissing, consider changing your insurance provider to one that doesn’t discriminate (USAA, State Farm, Chubb Group, AAA, Amica, Auto-Owners Insurance).

    • Our credit score is over 800, earn over 100k a year, umbrella coverage with USAA, two kids, and our great dog did bite a child. Freak thing, not good, big money. All the responsibility in the world could not have prevented. In our neighborhood the chow/lab cross bit the mailman and then my husband, badly, the german shepherd mix next door bit two kids, less badly, and the college kid with the beautiful Rhodesian Ridgeback bit another college kid when the two dogs got into a frightening fight, badly. Over the course of five years surgeons were kept busy. Everyone had kids except the college kid, no one thought their dog had a problem or even the potential for a problem. Need I say more?

  19. Andrew-

    This issue is solely about the landlords liability; nothing more. The insurance companies will not cover the property. I understand that not every dog in a breed is vicious, but they are going with “averages”. And it is not just Kentucky that has these laws. For now, it is just the way it is until the law can be changed.

    Sharon

  20. Although some of the statistics are alarming, are there any laws specifically in the state of Ohio naming any of the above named breeds as “vicious?” Currently, the law states that there is no one breed that can be out right considered vicious. In fact, the law was actually amended (House Bill 14) and repealed the section where pit bulls were considered and defined as vicious dogs. Furthermore, while it is true that some insurers may increase premiums which could be considered an undue financial/administrative burden, how can this be when dogs (not by breed) but by a case-by-case, dog-by-dog basis are only considered vicious when “without provocation, has killed or caused serious injury to any person?” This is in Ohio though and is different considering the state. But, it just seems interesting to me considering that there have been cases of small dogs such as a Pomeranian mauling a baby and surely, not every Pit-bull, Rottweiler, Doberman, Chow, German Shepard, Malamute, or Husky are in themselves purely vicious animals.

    • Sharon Vornholt

      Chelsea-

      You would have to Google the laws in your state.

      I just know that the laws have gotten even stricter in KY. since I wrote this article. KY isn’t the only state with these types of laws.

      Thanks for your comments.
      Sharon

  21. “What I found in my business, was that if the tenant found out you didn’t allow pets and they already had one, they just sneaked it in anyway.”

    This is one of the most ridiculous comments I’ve ever read. I have rental property, do not allow pets (except fish in a tank) and only once has a tenant “sneaked” in a pet and it was there only a couple days before other tenants reported it. Obviously, YOU are one of those landladies who don’t know what’s going on because you do not hire people to keep a close watch on your property or encourage other tenants to report those who are violating the rules. As soon as my manager found out about the dog, she issued the people a 3-day notice to vacate and they did so. Even though the dog was in the apartment less than a week, it did so much damage I ended up having to replace the carpet, padding and curtains in the bedroom, and the linoleum in the bathroom, where they, apparently, kept the dog when they were at work. Dogs bark, dogs have to be taken outdoors and if you have management on the premises during the daytime and security at night, there is no way a person can hide a dog.

    • Jason –

      As you found out it only takes a few days for dogs to do a tremendous amount of damage if it is that type of dog. You have much better luck getting someone to report a dog in apartments than with single family homes which is what I had.

      If you or your manager are lucky enough to drive by the house when the dog just happens to be out, then you can find out about the dog pretty quickly. Getting the neighbors to call? They often don’t want to get involved.

      Sharon

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