emotional support animal

Understanding emotional support animals (ESAs) is crucial for renters and landlords alike. Emotional support animals offer therapeutic benefits for individuals with mental health disabilities and are considered reasonable accommodations under the Fair Housing Act. This guide covers the key legalities, differences between ESAs and service animals, and crucial information for ensuring compliance and proper accommodations in rental properties.

Emotional support animals can have many benefits for renters who need them. If you are a renter with a disability or are a landlord who has received a request for reasonable accommodation, it’s important to understand the ins-and-outs of the legalities surrounding fair housing and assistance animals.

Understanding Emotional Support Animals

Whether you are a landlord, property manager, or a renter, understanding the definition and the laws that pertain to emotional support animals is key. Emotional support animals qualify as a resonable accommodation for a disability, which means that landlords and renters alike should understand tenant rights and the requirements involved with getting an ESA.

What is an emotional support animal (ESA)?

An emotional support animal is an assistance animal that provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified effects of a person’s disability, according to HUD. Individuals with a disability may request to keep an assistance animal as a reasonable accommodation to a housing provider’s pet restrictions.

An emotional support animal (ESA) provides therapeutic benefit to a person with a mental health or psychiatric disability and helps them alleviate the difficulties of mental health conditions such as stress, anxiety, ect. A professional such as a physician, psychiatrist, therapist, among others must send a Letter for a Companion Animal in order for a tenant to qualify for an ESA under the Americans with Disabilities Act. An assistance animal is not a pet. With proper documentation, a pet can become an emotional support animal without the need for specific training.

Is an emotional support animal different from a service animal?

Yes, emotional support animals and service animals are different and legally distinct; while both are assistance animals, a service animal is any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Only dogs who have received specialized training to perform a specific task or tasks for an individual with a disability are considered service animals.

Key Similarities Between an Emotional Support Animal and a Service Animal:

Key Differences Between an Emotional Support Animal  and a Service Animal:

  • Emotional support animals are not limited to dogs
  • Service animals must be dogs (and, in some cases, miniature horses)
  • Trained service animals that preform a task may be brought into all animal-free areas (restaurants and grocery stores, for example). Companion animals do not qualify under  ADA  guidelines.

How is an emotional support animal different from a pet?

An emotional support animal is not considered a pet. Pets can be excluded from a rental property based on a landlord’s or owner’s pet policy. Pet-friendly rentals can allow pets but require pet owners to pay “pet rent”, may require a pet deposit, or may ban certain pets based on breed age, and weight. (Landlords and renters should keep in mind that each state and municipality may have different laws regarding pet rent and pet restrictions.) Assistance animals, including ESAs, cannot be restricted or charged fees under these pet policies and restrictions.

Emotional Support Animal (ESA) Information for Landlords and Renters

Emotional support animals and other assistance animals are not considered pets under the Fair Housing Act and ADA guidelines; since they are considered reasonable accommodations for a disability pet policies do not apply. Landlords may still charge a general security deposit and deduct from the security deposit if there is any damage to the rental property caused by the assistance animal. If there is a nuisance or safety issue, landlords have the right to try to remove the assistance animal through legal proceedings.

According to HUD, to refuse an assistance animal of any kind, housing providers must demonstrate that:

  • Granting the request would impose an undue financial and administrative burden on the housing provider
  • The request would fundamentally alter the essential nature of the housing provider’s operations
  • The specific assistance animal in question would pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others despite any other reasonable accommodations that could eliminate or reduce the threat
  • The request would result in significant physical damage to the property of others despite any other reasonable accommodations that could eliminate or reduce the physical damage.

What do renters need for an ESA?

Landlords have the right to ensure that an assistance animal is necessary for the disability and may require written verification from the medical or mental health provider that is treating the individual. There may be additional proof required if the animal is non-traditional household animal. For instance, while landlords cannot apply size, weight, or breed restrictions to an assistance animal, if the emotional support animal is “outside of a normal household animal” (such as an animal other than a dog or cat), there needs to be a clear reason why the animal is needed, according to the Fair Housing Council of Oregon

Renters, landlords, and property managers should be aware of Federal Fair Housing Laws in regard to assistance animals, as well as their state and local fair housing laws to ensure that emotional support animal requests are met with a legal and reasonable accommodation of a disability.

If a renter believes that they have been unlawfully denied a reasonable accommodation for an assistance animal, they can file a complaint with HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO).

Screening an Emotional Support Animal as a Landlord:

Assistance animals, including emotional support animals, are not considered pets and do not have to go through standard pet screening procedures, however, having a standard and legal validation practice for assistance animals may be helpful to avoid discriminatory behavior as a housing provider.

Learn more: Pet Screening For Landlords And Renters

A validation service can remove much of the liability and ensure that accommodation requests are reasonable and authentic and that landlords do not unintentionally discriminate or ask discriminatory questions while evaluating a renter’s reasonable accommodation. If you are a landlord who utilizes general pet screening services, you may find that your pet screening solution can validate assistance animal requests.