Landlording & Rental Properties

An Emotional Support Peacock—Really?! How to Navigate the Murky Waters of ESAs as a Landlord

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Portrait of beautiful peacock with feathers out

In my last article, I wrote about pet policies for landlords, specifically relating to certain dog breeds that can be classified as dangerous, such as pitbull-type dogs. While I see many positives to accepting tenants with pets, I made the case that certain dogs are probably just too risky. A lively discussion ensued that I enjoyed very much. I hope to continue these conversations.

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I mentioned the issue of emotional support animals (ESAs) being a game-changer for your pet policy, and in need of a whole other article. Here is that article.

ESAs vs. Service Animals

First of all, emotional support animals are not service animals, like seeing eye dogs. Service animals are specially trained to do specific tasks that aid a person with disabilities or health problems. ESAs are just companion animals that alleviate mental or emotional conditions, but they have similar legal protections in the arenas of housing and travel. ESAs are not necessarily trained to do (or not do) anything.

This article is not talking about seeing eye dogs. I am strictly discussing emotional support dogs, cats, llamas, ferrets, pigs, ducks, donkeys etc.

The regulations around ESAs, as they are interpreted by case law today, provide many incentives for pet owners to get their pet officially declared an emotional support animal. Once that animal has the required documentation, which is ridiculously easy to get, it is no longer legally classified as a pet, but a medical device, like a wheelchair.

Just as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states you must make “reasonable accommodations” for wheelchairs, the Fair Housing Act (FHA) states that you must make reasonable accommodations for emotional support squirrels—regardless of your pet policies.

Your “No Pets Policy” Just Got Voided—Possibly

cute gray dog panting while peering over concrete wall outside

Not only must you allow an ESA, but you cannot charge an additional pet deposit—or pet rent—for the animal(s). Again, they are a medical device now. Could you charge extra rent or deposit for a wheelchair? No, you couldn’t. So even if you allow pets, a tenant with an ESA avoids your standard pet rents and pet deposits.

The incentives for the ESA designation do not end with housing. There are enticing travel benefits for ESAs. They must be allowed to travel with their humans—free of additional charge. Yes, people are traveling with their pitbulls and, yes, those ESA pitbulls are attacking other passengers and, yes, those passengers are suing the airlines.

I am certain lawsuits or new laws will clarify or change the status of ESA regulations so stay tuned. There are too many abusers and too much outrage for things to stand as they are much longer.

But what do you, as a landlord, need to know to protect your business under the status quo? Here are some dos and don’ts to keep in mind so that other landlords are the ones sorting this out in court and not you.

1. DON’T Revoke a Tenant’s Approval When They Reveal That They Have an ESA

A savvy applicant will not reveal this upfront. They are not required to. Be prepared for any applicant you approve to hit you with this little surprise after approval. Rescinding an approval at that point and for that reason is just inviting a lawsuit that any attorney would love to take, so don’t do it—unless your situation falls under one of the following exceptions. And please, consult an attorney before you do.

Exceptions to the FHA regulations on ESAs:
1.  Animal is too large for the property, such as a horse or alpaca
2. Property has four or fewer units and the landlord occupies one of the units
3. Single family homes rented without an agent

Related: The 6 Best Ways to Minimize Your Chances of a Lawsuit

2. DO Ask to See Their ESA Letter

A qualified emotional support animal must have a letter from a qualified medical or psychiatric professional stating that the animal alleviates symptoms of an emotional or mental disability. If they do not have this letter, then it is just a pet. You do not get to judge the resume of that professional or pick a different professional. If it is valid, you must accept it.

3. DO NOT Ask Any Follow-Up Questions about the Tenant’s Mental Health

That would be a violation of HIPAA and FHA regulations. Also, it’s none of your business. Don’t do it. They will sue you.

4. DO Discuss and Provide “Reasonable Accommodation” for the Animal

Beautiful woman and dog enjoying their time outdoors in nature

Don’t be a jerk. Many of these situations are legitimate. Any pet owner will tell you that their animals do provide loving companionship and contribute to positive mental health. A healthier tenant is a happier tenant, so in all sincerity, do what you reasonably can to accommodate these animals. For example, you could designate a pet relief area and provide doggy bags for cleanup.

You have the right to require the tenant to clean up after their animal. Your other tenants and neighbors still have the right to a sanitary and safe environment and quiet enjoyment of the property. If the emotional support aardvark is interfering with that, you can evict.

5. DO NOT Charge a Pet Deposit or Pet Rent for an ESA

These must be waived, however, if it is your current policy to charge tenants for damage beyond reasonable wear and tear, you can also charge your tenants for damage beyond reasonable wear and tear that their emotional support duck has wrought.

In fact, you might clarify in writing specifically that any damage done by the animal or human that is beyond reasonable wear and tear can and will be deducted from their normal standard deposit or charged to them some other way. The ESA letter is not a license for their emotional support pony to tear up your property.

Related: Emotional Support Animals & Waiver of “No Pet” Policies: What Does the Law Say?

6. DO Ask to See Veterinary Records

ESAs can be required to be up to date on vaccines and to receive regular veterinary care.

7. DO be on the Lookout for Signs of Neglect or Animal Abuse

As you would with any animal on the property, pay attention and record any signs or reports of abuse or neglect. ESAs are not exempt from animal cruelty laws, which are a criminal matter. If you become aware of anything like this on your property, you should take appropriate action. You are also within your rights to address bad behavior, such as excess noise or aggression. Certainly if the animal attacks someone, you should get it off your property immediately. All bets are off at that point.

8. DO Understand That You May be Able to Deny a Wild, Exotic, or Farm Animal

Remember the famous emotional support peacock? If you can make a case that the proposed emotional support tiger would pose a threat to others or could not be accommodated on the property within reason, you might have a case to deny the tenant. But you would probably have a battle on your hands if you tried to deny an emotional support mini horse or monkey. Consult an attorney if in doubt!

Fake Service Animals Are Suddenly Everywhere

It is incredibly easy to turn a pet into a legally recognized emotional support hamster, and there is a lot of incentive to do so. A quick web search reveals several sites dedicated to this process. Nearly anyone who has felt “sad” in the last two weeks can qualify, pay around $100 and get a letter in their hands within 24 hours. Landlords are going to be faced with this issue eventually—if they haven’t already.

I predict major changes in ESA regulations soon, but in the meantime, landlords need to understand and follow the law as it stands to avoid being sued by a peacock.

Note: None of this constitutes legal advice! I am simply discussing this increasingly impactful issue and its effect on landlords! Always discuss with a knowledgeable attorney familiar with your local regulations.

Have you encountered any strange service animals? Or do you have any pets-in-rentals horror stories? 

Share below!

Joe Asamoah, MBA, PhD, is a seasoned real estate investor. He owns an impressive portfolio of superior homes in the Washington DC area. With over 30 years' experience acquiring, renovating, and managing single family homes, "Dr. Joe" transformed what was once a hobby into a highly successful business. In 2003, his real estate investments enabled him to realize a personal goal of financial independence via passive and residual real estate cash flow. A major objective of Dr. Joe's business is to invest in people and properties. Many of his tenants are low-income families that participate in voucher programs. Because of his dedication to the industry, Dr. Joe is a recipient of numerous professional and real estate awards. Find out more on his website JoeAsamoah.com or on his Facebook page. or on Instagram.

    Wenda Kennedy JD from Nikiski, Alaska
    Replied about 1 month ago
    I've had some of these tenant problems recently with support animals. I have a guy who has both feet and most of his legs amputated. He has a huge German Shepard dog who likes to bark in the middle of the night -- waking up all his neighbors. We've been working on it. Now, my tenant has his dog under control. Finally. Most problems can be solved if you work at it enough.
    Steve B. investor from Centralia, IL
    Replied about 1 month ago
    Thank you for the email info
    Katie Rogers from Santa Barbara, California
    Replied about 1 month ago
    Or just let tenants have pets. I have only rarely seen circumstances where a pet is a problem. I even raised guide dog puppies in my apartment when I was a tenant. No problem, no damage, no issue. People talk about cats spraying. I have had lots of cats, many were strays. None of them ever sprayed.
    Mark Marks investor from Reading, Pa
    Replied 30 days ago
    Really Katie? I have had several pets that damaged property over the years. Even my own dog ate my area carpet one afternoon:) You've obviously never had to clean up after a tenant with a cat that sprayed the home. That was a very expensive repair. There's a reason why landlords are often concerned about pets.
    Katie Rogers from Santa Barbara, California
    Replied 30 days ago
    You are correct. I have already said I have never had a problem with cats spraying. But hey, kids do worse damage than pets. that is what the security deposit is for.
    Lauren Kormylo rental_property_investor from Phoenix, AZ
    Replied about 1 month ago
    I do allow pets, so I'm ok with animals. But this law means I can't charge a pet deposit for an ESA. I don't like that. We had one tenant whose dog clawed up an exterior wood door, which had to be refinished. Luckily, the dog was not an ESA and they did have a pet deposit which paid for that. Our current tenants have an ESA dog, and we inspect the house every year. So far, it hasn't caused any damage that we can see.
    Katie Rogers from Santa Barbara, California
    Replied 30 days ago
    Even if you did not have a per deposit, the security deposit would also have paid for the damage.
    David Semer from Lincroft, NJ
    Replied about 1 month ago
    Great article and very timely. I would just add to check with your insurance provider. For example, with my single-family homes, I have an insurance policy that has specific restrictions and animal breeds that are not allowed otherwise the provider will cancel my insurance policy. Make sure to protect yourself and your business always. thanks for sharing.
    Jeneen Hawkins
    Replied about 1 month ago
    Thank you all. Great info, great advice. 2 yrs into the rental business. No pet issues thus far.
    Cindy Larsen rental_property_investor from Lakewood, WA
    Replied 29 days ago
    Are you aware of any actual legislation in progress with regard to ESAs? Is there for example a Landlord organization that is fighting this issue? I bet a lot of bigger pockets members would contribute to that cause. I certainly would. Tenants with bogus emotional support animals are effectively stealing from the landlord by not paying the same pet deposits and pet rent that other more honest tenants pay. I have been stolen from in this way multiple times. These tenants also often do not reveal the emotional support animal until after they have been accepted.
    Luke Anderson investor from Arnold, Maryland
    Replied 29 days ago
    Thank you for the article. I allow pets in my property but with a pet deposit. My newest tenant in the property has an ESA and I was not able to put into effect those normal provisions. I appreciate the info.
    Andrew Syrios from Kansas City, Missouri
    Replied 29 days ago
    If someone demanded an emotional support peacock, I would probably accept it just out respect for the audacity of the request.
    Mike Carter
    Replied 19 days ago
    I had the situation with a para-legal tenant who had an ESA. Their “ESA” was a “pit bull mix”, which, even though it is often considered a dangerous breed, I could not legally deny the dog being on-site. However, my attorney confirmed that I could require the tenant to carry renter’s insurance with me personally AND my LLC that owns the property to be added as additional insureds on the policy. That cost the tenant a few $$, but they paid it. Fortunately, their plans changed and they moved-out within 3 months and forfeited their security deposit. As stated in other posts, there are definitely abusers of the ESA law who just want a pet (including dangerous breeds) contrary to a landlord’s policies. Unfortunately, someone will have to get bit of otherwise injured before legislation tightens up the abuse.
    Sharon Rosendahl investor from Stanwood, Washington
    Replied 12 days ago
    As with so many other issues, good tenants will end up paying. I allow pets with appropriate fees and deposits. At this point, I'm considering allowing pets with no extra charges and just charging a significantly larger security deposit. We don't have a deposit limit in Washington, yet. Of course, good tenants without a pet will suffer for this since they will have to pay the same deposit as someone with pets. When the only risk was to have no extra charge for qualified service animals that wasn't as bad since those animals are highly trained and are much less likely to attack, bark too much, chew etc.