Landlording & Rental Properties

Do Landlords Have to Allow Emotional Support Animals? Know the Laws

Expertise: Landlording & Rental Properties
10 Articles Written
Portrait of beautiful peacock with feathers out

If you have a no-pet policy, you probably won't be surprised to learn that doesn't apply to service dogs—but you might be shocked when realizing that emotional support animal laws supersede your policy, too.

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That’s because an emotional support animal is not considered a pet. Like a service dog, it is an assistive device to help with a disability, similar to the way a wheelchair provides assistance. Since a service animal is not a pet, a housing provider cannot charge a pet deposit or additional pet rent.

(What’s the legal basis? Look to the Fair Housing Act, or FHA, which was adopted in 1968. Later, in 1988, lawmakers modified federal law to prevent discrimination against families or people with disabilities.)

RelatedThe Fair Housing Act and Landlords: What You Should Know

You may, however, refuse an animal that poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others, but you must be able to prove that the specific animal is a threat—general assumptions based on breed or size are not allowed.

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When Can a Landlord Legally Reject an ESA?

There are very few properties that are exempt from these laws:

  • A building with four or fewer units, one of which is owner-occupied
  • Single-family homes where the owner does not use a real estate agent to buy or rent the property, assuming the owner owns less than three single-family houses
  • Housing owned by organizations or private clubs that is used for members.

Your insurance policy may also give you an out. “Reasonable” accommodation requests are only reasonable if the request can be easily granted—that is, if they won’t cost you an excessive amount of money or time. A 2006 Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) memo states that, “If a housing provider’s insurance carrier would cancel, substantially increase the costs of the insurance policy, or adversely change the policy terms because of the presence of certain breeds of dog or a certain animal, HUD will find that this imposes an undue financial and administrative burden on the housing provider.”

cute gray dog panting while peering over concrete wall outside

ESAs vs. Service Animals

First of all, emotional support animals are not identical to a service animal for a disabled person, like a guide dog. Assistance animals, like seeing-eye dogs, are specially trained to do specific tasks that aid a person with health problems or emotional disabilities, like post-traumatic stress disorder or any other mental impairments. ESAs are companion animals that alleviate mental or emotional conditions and must be prescribed by a mental health professional or physician.

They aren’t necessarily trained to do anything. However, they do have similar legal protections.

Just as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states you must make “reasonable accommodations” for wheelchairs, the FHA states that you must make reasonable accommodations for emotional support squirrels—regardless of your pet policies. That can be hard for today’s landlords, because the internet makes it astonishingly easy to register any pet as an emotional support animal—even if you don’t have a diagnosed mental illness.

Your ‘No Pets’ Policy Just Got Voided—Possibly

Not only must you allow an ESA, but you cannot charge additional pet fees. 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 emotional support dog or miniature horse avoids your standard pet rents and deposits.

Know Your Emotional Support Animal Laws

How can you protect your real estate business under the emotional support animal status quo? Here are some dos and don’ts.

Don’t revoke a tenant’s approval

A savvy applicant will not reveal this up front. They are not required to. Be prepared for any applicant to hit you with this post-approval surprise. Rescinding an approval at that point, for that reason, invites a lawsuit. Don’t do it. And please, consult an attorney before you do.

Do ask for their ESA letter

An 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. However, if they do not have this letter, then it is just a pet.

Keep in mind that you can’t judge the resume of that professional or insist they pick a different professional. If it is valid, you must accept it.

Don’t ask mental health follow-up questions

Frankly, it’s none of your business. And legally? Asking these questions can leave you toeing the line of the emotional support animal laws. Don’t do it. You’re risking a lawsuit.

Do provide ‘reasonable accommodations’ for the animal

Don’t be a jerk. Many emotional support animal situations are legitimate. (And any pet owner can tell you that animals provide loving companionship and contribute to positive mental health.) This means that a healthier tenant is a happier tenant, so do what you can to accommodate these animals.

For example, you could designate a pet relief area and provide doggy bags.

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.

Beautiful woman and dog enjoying their time outdoors in nature

Do not charge a pet deposit or pet rent

Emotional support animal laws dictate that these fees must be waived for ESA owners. However, if you currently charge tenants for damage beyond reasonable wear and tear, you can also charge your tenants for damage from their emotional support duck.

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.

Do ask to see veterinary records

You can require that ESAs are up-to-date on vaccines and to receive regular veterinary care.

Do be on the lookout for signs of neglect or animal abuse

Therapy animals are not exempt from animal cruelty laws, which are a criminal matter. So if you see anything like this, take appropriate action. In addition, you are within your rights to address bad behavior, such as noise or aggression. Certainly if the animal attacks someone, you should get it off your property immediately. All bets are off at that point.

Do understand that you may be able to deny wild or farm animals

Remember the famous emotional support peacock? If the proposed animal poses a threat or can’t be reasonably accommodated, you might have a case for denial. 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.

The law won’t cover someone scamming the system, but don’t assume that renters are scammers. Put aside emotions, speak calmly, and ask for documentation. And remember: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Wouldn’t you rather spend a few hundred dollars on an attorney than the few—or many, in some cases—thousands of dollars in fines because you misinterpreted the law? Local laws can vary, too. Better safe than sorry.

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

Share below!

Joe Asamoah, MBA, Ph.D., is a seasoned real estate investor. He owns an impressive portfolio of superior homes in the Washington D.C. area. With over 30 years' experience acquiring, renovating, and...
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    Wenda Kennedy JD from Nikiski, Alaska
    Replied 12 months 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 12 months ago
    Thank you for the email info
    Katie Rogers from Santa Barbara, California
    Replied 12 months 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 12 months 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 12 months 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 12 months 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 12 months ago
    Even if you did not have a per deposit, the security deposit would also have paid for the damage.
    David Semer Investor from Lincroft, NJ
    Replied 12 months 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 12 months 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 12 months 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 Rental Property Investor from Arnold, MD
    Replied 12 months 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 Residential Real Estate Investor from Kansas City, MO
    Replied 12 months 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 11 months 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 11 months 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.
    Jayne Rocco from Deland, Florida
    Replied 10 months ago
    I had this issue several months ago when I discovered my tenants 4 pits and 10 cats which he said were all ESA. I cant remember where I found it so not telling anyone to rely on this but seems I uncovered that a landlord had the right to call the prescribing doctor to verify he wrote the letter and the tenant had been in his care at least 3 months.
    Isaac Agbolosoo Rental Property Investor from Grosse ile, MI
    Replied 3 months ago
    Well recently I denied a tenant.. He/she could did not provide an ESA letter
    David King
    Replied 3 months ago
    They got a way around it now. I just raised all my deposits by five hundred dollars, so I get one month plus five hundred. I assume they have a pet.
    Erik Stenbakken Investor from Nortnern Colorado
    Replied 3 months ago
    Heads up that this -- accommodation -- applies to short term rentals too. Basically, they take their pet on vacation, don't tell you, then claim it was an ESA. Oh, and it's illegal to charge extra cleaning fees associated with an ESA/ service animal. But one CAN charge for damages. Standard disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer; your state laws may vary, etc. As said above, this is just going to escalate until owners (us) take some action and push back. That said, I've done work for organizations that serve the blind and can attest to the fact that there ARE such things as legit service animals. And in my experience, those legit service animals are typically much better citizens than most humans. It's not real service animals that are an issue -- it's bogus ESAs. Owners beware. And as Joseph says… be AWARE of what you can and cannot do/say/charge.
    Joe C. from New Jersey
    Replied 3 months ago
    I have a self-managed STR in a 12 unit condo, and the condo bylaws state only owners can have pets. It specifically says: "No tenant shall be permitted to raise, breed, or keep reptiles, birds, or animals of any kind, including, but not limited to domestic pets, in any Unit or anywhere else within the Condominium, and all leases shall include language specifically prohibiting animals or pets of any kind." Thoughts on whether I must prevent ESA and/or service animals? It specifically says "animals or pets".
    Lisa Troxel Investor from Hayden, Idaho
    Replied 3 months ago
    @Joseph Asamoah Thank you so much for this article. I posted a question about this issue last week because this article did not come up in my search. @Cindy Larsen I agree, I would join an organization like that in a heartbeat.
    Karl B. Rental Property Investor from Columbia, MO
    Replied 3 months ago
    This is a great article as there is a lot of confusion on this subject. I also laughed when I read this: "Certainly if the animal attacks someone, you should get it off your property immediately" because I imagined an emotional support duck attacking another tenant, feathers flying everywhere. Any goodness... if someone had an emotional support monkey that would be amazing. The monkey could help with sending out direct mail postcards. :-)
    Jerome Kaidor Investor from Hayward, California
    Replied 3 months ago
    A story from my lawyer: One of his clients had a tenant with an emotional support animal...or was it? The tenant had a letter from a medical service. It turned out that the medical service was Internet-based, and issued those letters freely for pointing, clicking, and paying a fee. So the client ( building owner ) got on the website and requested a letter for a forty pound parrot. In court - "Your honor, I have a letter from the same office that says that I need a forty pound parrot as an emotional support animal".
    Kevin McLaughlin from Houston, Texas
    Replied 3 months ago
    Thanks for the info, Joseph. Can you deny the emotional support giraffe if the home owners association only allows certain species? Ours only allows cats, dogs, fish and other "common" animals. The HOA rules were in place when I purchased the property.
    Tori Saysso
    Replied 3 months ago
    Its great we all want to protect our investments, however, the majority of people with ESA's really do benefit from having them. It sounds like most of the people commenting have no empathy for your fellow humans. Consider these circumstances: a wife whose husband is deployed or a man whose partner works elsewhere and is only home once or twice a month, what about an only child with health risks during quarantine, or a single young person trying to live alone following a sexual assault, or a widow who just lost her sole surviving family member. Loneliness now kills as many people per year as smoking. Its downright cruel and frankly embarrassing that bottom lines now mean more than human lives.
    Debra Gonzalez
    Replied 2 months ago
    Thank you for your comment Tori. You are absolutely right. I lost my husband (my best friend) thru a sudden and tragic accident one year ago, and I don't know what I would have done without my ESA dog Sissy. She has been here for me every step of the way on this horrific journey called grief. She was given to me by my husband about 8 months before his death and I cherish her and her company. Thanks for seeing it thru the other side of the spectrum. They truly are a god send that ask for nothing more than to be loved.
    Debra Gonzalez
    Replied 2 months ago
    PS...thank God Sissy and I found and just moved in to an apartment complex that welcome dogs, period. Sissy has found plenty of new playmate and we are so happy. But it wasn't easy finding one.