Having a Service Dog or an Emotional Support Dog is a process that benefits a lot of people with mental and/or physical disabilities worldwide. However, it is also accompanied by many challenges. I have used the word “process” on purpose, as taking care of an assistance dog and maintaining his/her training skills is a lifetime goal, that requires time, energy, patience and practice. Unfortunately, many of the challenges that physically and/or mentally impaired people have to deal with in their daily lives are related to the lack of knowledge of the general public in regard to the nature of assistance animals.
A common problem that plenty of people having Emotional Support Dogs is likely to experience at some point in their lives is being rejected by landlords due to the presence of their Emotional Support Animal, whether a dog or another specie.
In today’s article, we would like to shed light on the rights and responsibilities of ESA owners and their animals (dogs in particular) as well as if a landlord is allowed to deny them accommodation rights.
What Are Emotional Support Animals?
To be able to answer the question, asked in the title, we need to explain first what ESAs are. Emotional Support Animals can be all types of domesticated animals such as dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs...etc., that provide comfort and companionship to their owners and mitigate the symptoms of mental disabilities.
Emotional Support Animals vs Service Animals
There is an essential difference between the two types of assistance animals:
Service Dogs are individually trained to perform tasks directly related to a certain disability. They must be granted public access rights, as they are considered “medical equipment” and not pets.
Emotional Support Animals, despite the fact that they go through basic obedience to behave properly while in public, do not perform specific tasks directly related to a certain disability. They provide comfort and companionship to their owner but are not considered service animals. Hence, they do not have the same access rights and may be prohibited by covered entities. Also, ESAs are not allowed to travel in the aircraft's passenger cabin.
Emotional Support Animals- Accommodation Rights
The FHA was passed in 1968 to protect the rights of people against discrimination because of their:
• Race or color;
• National Origin;
• Familial status (including children under the age of 18 living with
parents or legal custodians; pregnant women and people securing
custody of children under 18).
Landlords are required to provide people with disabilities and their Emotional Support Animals with reasonable accommodation. You may wonder what the meaning of “reasonable accommodation” is. According to the United Nations which uses this term in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by “reasonable accommodation” it is meant: “... necessary and appropriate modification and adjustments not imposing a disproportionate or undue burden, where needed in a particular case, to ensure to persons with disabilities the enjoyment or exercise on an equal basis with others of all human rights and fundamental freedoms”.
Emotional Support Animals are considered a type of assistance animal and the no-pet policy that landlords may run, does not apply to them.
How to Make Your Dog an ESA and Prove His/Her Legitimacy
You need to contact a relevant mental health professional in regard to a letter that verifies your need for an Emotional Support Animal. It is important to note that letters issued to prove a dog’s legitimacy as an ESA are different from the letters issued to prove the need for a service dog.
Another essential step you need to take is to train your dog in basic obedience to make sure that he/she will be well-mannered and will not behave disruptively. Although ESAs do not perform specific tasks, they still need to behave properly while in public, hence their owners need to take care of their basic obedience training.
As a next step, you will need to submit the letter to your landlord so that they can verify the legitimacy of your ESA.
We would recommend that you kindly let the landlord know about your intention to bring an Emotional Support Animal, provide them with the letter in advance and explain that the animal is well-mannered, taken care of, behaves properly, and will not disrupt the other tenants. Also, you should explain that you bear full responsibility for the animal and any damage that he/she may cause.
Are Landlords Allowed to Require Information About their Tenants’ Disabilities
No, landlords may not ask you personal information about your disability. You have the right to keep any personal details related to your physical and/or mental condition private. However, we would recommend that you try to avoid any conflicts with the landlords and politely explain that you are eligible for an ESA and can provide / have already provided a letter issued by a mental health professional as a proof.
How Many ESAs Can a Person Have
The Fair Housing Act does not set a limitation of the number of ESAs that a person is allowed to have. However, if you would like to bring more than one ESA, you will need to have a letter issued by a therapist / relevant mental health professional that verifies your need for each animal. Typically, landlords are not really supportive to tenants having more than one Emotional Support Animal, so you will need to provide a reasonable proof.
Do You Have to Register Your ESA to Prove His/Her Legitimacy
Registration of Emotional Support Animals and Service Animals in the US is a kind of a “hot topic”, as many websites claim that they will register your Emotional Support Animal or Service Animal. There is no official service dog or ESA registry in the US and the UK, so your landlord is not allowed to require an ESA registration. If your local laws require all dogs to be registered or licensed, you will need to comply with that, as dogs are subject to local license and registry laws.
Are Landlords Allowed to Charge You Fees for Having an ESA
Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals must be accommodated free of charge. They are not considered pets and must not be charged fees. You may not be required to pay deposit due to the presence of your Emotional Support Animal.
However, if your ESA causes damages, relevant fees may be charged or he/she may be prohibited.
Do Guard Dogs Qualify as Emotional Support Animals or Service Animals
No, guard dogs are protection dogs, who do not provide emotional support neither do perform specific tasks related to a certain disability. If you would like to rent an apartment and bring your guard dog, you should keep in mind that the landlord is not required to provide accommodation.
Since we have already covered some essential points in regard to the nature of Emotional Support Animals, we come to an important question:
Can a Landlord Refuse to Accommodate an ESA?
Yes, they can and we will let you know under what circumstances your ESA may be denied housing rights. The first reason for your landlord to legally deny your ESA is:
1. Illegitimate Letter to Verify Your Need for an ESA
If you can not provide a letter issued by a medical professional or it is illegal, your landlord is not obligated to accommodate your ESA.
By “illegal” is meant any letter issued by a non-licensed health provider, or by a health provider who is not licensed to practice in the country, where the person requires reasonable accommodation for their ESA.
Also, we highly recommend that you do not buy any letters from websites, not authorized to provide medical support. You should consult a legitimate mental health provider in regard to an ESA letter.
We will list some helpful tips on how to recognize if a health provider is legitimate, hence you will get a valid ESA letter:
• Check the health provider’s information (contact details, license number, address);
• Check if there is an Issue / Expiration Date;
• Check if there is letterhead of the health provider / medical centre;
• Make sure that the health provider has actually assessed your mental health prior to issuing a letter.
2. Expired ESA Letter
Typically an ESA letter is valid for one year, so you should double-check the expiration date of the letter prior to submitting it to the landlord.
3. Your ESA Causes Damage and Behaves Improperly
You should monitor your ESA’s behavior and make sure that he/she will behave appropriate after being accommodated. Please keep in mind that ESAs may not be charged extra fees, hence if they cause any damages, landlords will not be able to protect their property. Of course, you may be required to cover the damages after that.
If your ESA is not well-mannered, i.e. constantly barks, sniffs around, disturbs the other tenants, the landlord is allowed to prohibit his/her presence.
You should always make sure that your ESA has the right personality for this “job” and is at his/her best behavior. If your dog (the pet you would like to turn into your ESA) is prone to aggression, reactiveness, has a non-friendly demeanor, does not like being petted and does not like being around people and animals, he/she may not be the best candidate for an ESA. Of course, mild behavioral issues can always occur and can be solved, if addressed in a timely manner.
4. Your ESA Posses Threat to the Health of Others
When we talk about “threat” we do not only mean the dog’s behavior. If a tenant/the landlord, is allergic to dog’s fur, the landlord may reject an ESA in the best interest of other tenants on the property. In 2020 the Iowa Supreme Court held “that where the physical or mental well-being of tenants conflict with one another due to an ESA, a priority in time test is applied as one factor (but not the only or a dispositive factor) in the analysis as to the reasonableness of the accommodation”. In this particular case the Court’s decision was in favor of the tenant, allergic to dog’s fur, who rented a unit first.
5. Your Esa Is Too Large to Be Accommodated
This is especially valid for miniature horses or animals who due to their large size may cause damages to the property and can not be accommodated in the available space.
6. Your Request Is Considered “Unreasonable”
The term “unreasonable” may sound a bit vague, as people are likely to have a different idea of what might be considered “reasonable” and “unreasonable”. However, in this case we are talking about requests for:
-Renting a specific room / unit due to your ESA;
-Having a particular person as a roommate, who may not enjoy being around animals;
-Having a specific ESA-related equipment in the apartment such as horse stable.
What to Do if the Landlord Denies Your ESA
The first and best thing to do is to figure out why your ESA has been rejected. You should keep in mind that the landlord may not be familiar with the regulations in regard to ESAs, thus with their rights and responsibilities. We would recommend that you try to remain calm and politely explain that you are eligible for an ESA, can provide a letter issued by a medical professional, and that your ESA knows basic obedience and is well-mannered. Also, you should inform your landlord that you bear a complete responsibility for your ESA, including the way he/she behaves and any damages that he/she may cause.
If you believe that your ESA has been illegally discriminated you have the right to file a complaint with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Tips on What to Do After You and Your ESA Have Been Granted Accommodation Rights
You should always keep in mind that there are other tenants and your ESA should not disturb them. Make sure that your ESA is not too loud, do not behave disruptively, so that the other people on the property can also feel comfortable.
If you have a roommate, you may want to discuss with them the situation and try to find a compromise in case they are not dog / pet lovers or are allergic to fur.
You should always take care of your ESA both physically and mentally- invest time in walking, playing, and checking your ESA’s health by a veterinarian.
Brush your ESA and clean up after them. You should always carry poop bags when walking him/her and clean the fur fallen on the floor and the furniture in the property you rented.
People having Emotional Support Animals and/or Service Animals may face many challenges on a daily basis, due to lack of knowledge and misunderstanding among the public. Despite all the difficulties you may face, I would recommend that you remain calm, try to explain your point of view and let the landlord (or any people who may play any role in your life) know what your rights and responsibilities are. Of course, if you believe that a friendly dialogue can not be kept, you can always protect your rights and file a complaint with the HUD.