Really...!?!... Is there such a thing as a "service hamster?"

24 Replies

Over the past 10 years I have leased a few dozen SFRs in several towns in Utah. I have also had rentals in Hawaii and California. I sometimes have one or two people mention a service dog but this spring I have 2 vacant properties and every other caller has a "service" or "therapy" animal . . . or three!!! 

All of these callers are quick to add that their "therapy cats" or guinea pigs or pit bulls have been "certified" by a vet or their physician. I understand the laws about discrimination against disabled people so I try to be absolutely fair about evaluating their applications compared to others. Still, if I clearly state that a property won't allow pets am I required to consider three "therapy cats" and a "documented emotional support pit bull" and maybe a seeing-eye hamster?

@Douglas Larson

Still laughing on the seeing eye hamster.

One thing we do is provide them with a scary form of our own that they have to take to their medical provider to sign.  I think UAA has one.  It weeds out a lot of the envelope pushers if there is an extra step and it looks official.

I was talking with a successful property manager the other day about this exact topic and he mentioned that he says "no animals", instead of "no pets", which apparently trumps the service animal status. I can't say for certain and would be interested to hear if anyone can substantiate the claim.

That successful property manager is wrong. Completely wrong. Changing a word does not Trump anything and he's just asking for trouble.

Americans with Disabilities Act covers animals in public spaces. They must be certified and trained to perform specific tasks, like a dog trained to guide a blind person. 

Fair Housing regulates service animals in rentals. These animals do not have to be certified or trained for any particular task and are typically for emotional support only. Yet they cannot be discriminated against any more than a wheelchair or cane. You can't deny them, increase the deposit, or charge pet rent.

 Support animals can be any kind of animal, including pigs, miniature horses, and even four cats for a 45- year-old man (I've seen each of these). There are even web sites that "prescribe" the animal for a small fee, having never even met the individual. It is a major scam and I suspect we will see improved regulation in the next few years.

The way to protect yourself is to know the law better than the renter and exercise your right to verify. This scares 95% of them away immediately.

Sorry Neal, that manager is wrong. Federal ADA guidelines define service animals as dogs or rarely miniature horses. Emotional support animals can be pretty much anything and is governed by the FHA. While you are not allowed to ask what the disability is that they need the animal for, you can ask for documentation from a physician stating that it is indeed a support animal. Unfortunately, this isn't as difficult for them as it used to be... It doesn't matter if you have species or breed restrictions, have size restrictions, or don't allow pets as a whole, they have to be allowed if documented. They are not considered pets and so cannot be restricted. You also can't charge a pet rent or pet deposits... again, they're not "pets." Even counties or municipalities like Denver that have Pit Bull restrictions still have to allow Pits In if they are "support animals."

That being said, you can keep them to the terms of your pet agreement, if the animal is aggressive or destructive or if the owner doesn't pick up after it you can evict or charge for damage caused by the animal just like you would any other pet damage.

Reference: Woodside Village v. Hertzmark, 1993 WL 268293. The court found there that the landlord did not fail to properly accommodate a tenant's disability after the tenant was evicted for his demonstrated inability to comply with the plaintiff's pet policy," which included cleaning up after the dog and toileting the dog in a designated area.

@Bill S.

There is case law to support it. The tenant would also be subject to all the other provisions of the lease, such as maintaining his or her residence in a sanitary manner. "Unsanitary conditions and noxious smells that interfere with neighbors peaceful enjoyment of the premises" sounds much better in an eviction filing than "failure to pick up dog $%!#...

It really disgusts me how many places there are out there selling "prescriptions" for these bogus support animals. Apparently you always qualify if you simply say the animal supports you in any way what so ever. You don't need a verifiable condition. And the pet does not have to be trained or certified in any way.

Landlords need to start demanding changes to these laws. It's also use as a loophole for flying with your pet, next time you see an idiot with an uncaged animal on a plane, this is why. Can't bring a bottle of water on a plane, but you can have a loose racoon on your lap if you have a "prescription".

Where can I get a prescription raccoon? I have a lot of anxiety about clean food so he can wash all my food for me before I eat it.

Service hamster? I'm not touching that one. A few years ago I think a celebrity had a service gerbil... or maybe he had the gerbil service him? Not sure on that one or how that would play out on a lease.

Originally posted by @Aaron Mazzrillo :

Where can I get a prescription raccoon? I have a lot of anxiety about clean food so he can wash all my food for me before I eat it.

Just a few minutes on google will get you the prescription. No joke. You could keep it in any rental and the landlord cannot discriminate. Now, as to where you actually find that raccoon, that's another matter...I think you're going to need a trap.

That's the thing - the raccoon doesn't even need to be prescription grade! Any old thing will do.

What about asking for a copy of the prescribers medical license to practice medicine in the state you are in . A certified copy , then ask for a notirized copy of the prescription to prove it isnt a forgery . Then requesting proof of all vacines on the animal , and proof that the animal has a license as required by the local government . 

Do they give rabies shots to hamsters ?

I am a dog lover and would do anything for my two boys, however, I just can't imagine claiming them as therapy pets, emotional support pets, or a service pet just to get what I wanted. All of these bogus 'certifications' are making it harder for people who truly need a service pet to go about their daily lives. They are doing a great disservice to those who need help. 

I might get some grief over this but I believe that a true service pet is trained to do a specific, or specific things, to help its owner. They are always trained and/or well behaved. 

I was at hotel recently and I saw a couple with a husky going through the lobby. I said to the front desk clerk, "I thought animals were not allowed?" She replied back with "well, its a service animal so we had to allow it." Fair enough I thought. 

I head out to my car and I see this 'service dog' off its leash running around the parking area while the owners are packing the car. They have to call and coax their dog back to them. This took several minutes while the dog continued to run around.

This is NOT a service dog. Period.

Okay, I will get off my soapbox now :-)

Two more quick points. First, you are allowed to verify that a disability exists. I do not accept certificates from online sources because they are incapable of diagnosing. I require a written statement on the letterhead of the prescribing party and I call to verify the applicant did not forge it.
Second, Fair Housing requires you make a "reasonable" accommodation. If farm animals are forbidden per city zoning laws, it is unreasonable to accept them. If your insurance company will not allow certain dog breeds, you can forbid them because it would void your insurance coverage.
Again, if you study the law and put proper procedures in place, you can stop most of these from happening.

So this is what is going on.  We have a sfm for rent currently and I would say 90 percent have claimed that their pet is a "service" animal.  We just say No Animals.  End of story.  No one challenges it.

Originally posted by @Margaret Martindale :

So this is what is going on.  We have a sfm for rent currently and I would say 90 percent have claimed that their pet is a "service" animal.  We just say No Animals.  End of story.  No one challenges it.

The problem with this is that if you have a blind person who otherwise qualifies, and you deny them due to their dog, then you could be sued.

Typically renters not having a real need for a service animal other things will pop up in the qualification process.

You can use other reasons to deny renting that are legal and legitimate.

This is why I love the commercial real estate space. I grew tired of the residential tenants BS. Commercial is not without it's issues but it's more along things I can live with without a massive headache.

No legal advice given.

This is a touchy subject. I wrote an article for the BiggerPockets blog about this a few months ago, and the responses are very one side or the other. 

Keep in mind, the article was written from the standpoint of the law, not from my own personal standpoint. 

But a blanket statement "No Animals" can get you fined if you say that to the wrong person. 

Service animals are trained to do a task - think seeing-eye dogs. Emotional Support Animals provide support - think people suffering from PTSD or crippling anxiety.

There has been some correct information in this thread, along with a lot of incorrect information. I'll steal from Joel Owens and say No Legal Advice Given, consult your attorney.

But the law states you must make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. If your insurance policy states No Pit Bulls, a reasonable accommodation is to find an insurance company that accepts them at a similar rate. If your rates go up by thousands, that is not a reasonable accommodation. But you should have those quotes on hand to prove that you tried to accommodate.

If the disability is not visible, then you may ask for proof of prescription for the ESA. You may NOT ask about the disability diagnosis. It isn't up to you to determine if you think they need an ESA. 

We have also been concerned about this.  We have also created an online application and general questionnaire that has to be completed.  We conduct background checks and credit checks.  These seem to weed out a lot of tenants.  So far, this has yielded much higher-quality tenants and gives us the opportunity to choose the best fit.

Since you CAN discriminate on so many other criteria, why would you decide to tell the potential tenant WHY and WHAT reason you have to deny them occupancy? A simple "we had better qualified tenants" would be enough. You are under no obligation to explain your reasoning unless you are under oath in a court proceedings. They may press you for what the reason was, but just don't give them anything they could use against you (this goes for any tenant for any reason).

You can discriminate on the basis of nearly everything (other than the "duh" stuff like race, religion, age, martial status, disability etc).  The couple with the tattoos -not a protected class. The guy with low credit score - not a protected class. The person with an "emotional support" animal that wants to move in on the 3rd and not the 1st - you are not obligated as long as you have another tenant who will move in on the 1st. 

So don't deny the service animal tenant your place because of the animal, deny it for the hundred other real reasons that are within the law. 

If someone applied with a "service hamster",  I would not be so concerned about the rodent, but with what ever future stunts and schemes the tenant would pull down the line.

What about if a prospective tenant says they have an emotional support animal, ( and let's just assume they have the proper certifications/documentation for that animal. )  and then they say they also have a cat or another dog as well, but they do not have any certifications/documentation. 

Are you still discriminating against them if you deny their application because of the additional pets?

Originally posted by @Mike Nelson :

If someone applied with a "service hamster",  I would not be so concerned about the rodent, but with what ever future stunts and schemes the tenant would pull down the line.


Landlords are making this issue far too complicated. A landlord is not required to accept a applicant because they fall under a protected category like some kind of endangered species.

Landlords have the legal right to accept the most qualified candidate. All the better if it is not required that you tell them why they are not accepted.

I have never had any issues rejecting any applicant for whatever reason I choose because the one I do choose is always more qualified based on my screening criteria. You figure out how to make it work for you "legally" and all is good. Stop worrying and get stream lining your business practices to fit your needs.

I must admit I have one tenant that did not mention on his application that he has a invisible friend. Not a service animal however. He slipped through my screening and it has been a problem for me, no system is 100% reliable I guess.

@Thomas S. said above, "So don't deny the service animal tenant your place because of the animal, deny it for the hundred other real reasons that are within the law."

That's exactly what landlords need to know. Thanks all for the great responses!

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