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FAQs on Emotional Support Animals

Rebecca F. Wisch


Animal Legal & Historical Center
Publish Date:
2013
Place of Publication: Michigan State University College of Law
Printable Version

FAQs on Emotional Support Animals

1. What is an emotional support animal and what are the requirements to obtain one?

2. What is the difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal?

3. Does the FHA apply to all housing?

4. What documentation do I need to provide to have an emotional support animal?

5. Can a person have more than one service or emotional support animal?

6. Can the landlord charge me a pet/security deposit for my emotional support animal?

 

1. What is an emotional support animal and what are the requirements to obtain one?

An emotional support animal is not a pet. An emotional support animal is a companion animal that provides therapeutic benefit to an individual with a mental or psychiatric disability. The person seeking the emotional support animal must have a verifiable disability (the reason cannot just be a need for companionship). The animal is viewed as a "reasonable accommodation" under the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (the FHA) to those housing communities that have a "no pets" rule. In other words, just as a wheelchair provides a person with a physical limitation the equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling, an emotional support animal provides a person with a mental or psychiatric disability the same opportunity to live independently. Most times, an emotional support animal will be seen as a reasonable accommodation for a person with such a disability. Failure to make reasonable accommodations by changing rules or policies can be a violation of the FHA unless the accommodation would be an undue financial burden on the landlord or cause a fundamental alteration to the premises.

To qualify, a person must meet the federal definition of disability and must have a note from a physician or other medical professional stating that a person has a disability and that the reasonable accommodation (here, the emotional support animal) provides benefit for the individual with the disability. The emotional support animal alleviates or mitigates some of the symptoms of the disability. No specific training of the animal is required.

 

2. What is the difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal?

Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. These tasks can include things like pulling a wheelchair, guiding people who are visually impaired, alerting a person who is having a seizure, or even calming a person who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The tasks a service dog can perform are not limited to this list. However, the work or task a service dog does must be directly related to the person's disability. Service dogs may accompany persons with disabilities into places that the public normally goes. This includes state and local government buildings, businesses open to the public, public transportation, and non-profit organizations open to the public. The law that allows a trained service dog to accompany a person with a disability is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

An emotional support animal is a companion animal (typically a dog or cat) that provides a therapeutic benefit to its owner through companionship. The animal provides emotional support and comfort to individuals with psychiatric disabilities and other mental impairments. The animal is not specifically trained to perform tasks for a person who suffers from emotional disabilities. Unlike a service animal, an emotional support animal is not granted access to places of public accommodation. Under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), an emotional support animal is viewed as a "reasonable accommodation" in a housing unit that has a "no pets" rule for its residents.

 

3. Does the FHA apply to all housing?

The Fair Housing Act does3apply to almost all housing types including those for sale or rent. This includes apartments, condominiums, and single family homes. There are some major exceptions, such as buildings with four or fewer units where the landlord lives in one of the units. The law also excludes private owners who do not own more than three single family homes, do not use real estate agents or brokers, and do not engage in discriminatory advertising practices.

The FHA would then cover homes in a planned community with a "no pets" restriction, owned or rented condominiums with a "no pets" covenant, and apartments with a "no pets" clause in the lease. As long as those housing units do not fall within listed exceptions, landlords or housing associations must comply with the FHA.

 

4. What documentation do I need to provide to have an emotional support animal?

If a person needs an emotional support animal to help alleviate the symptoms of a disability, he or she must first make the request to his or her landlord. Most sources indicate that the request should be in writing and explain how the reasonable accommodation helps or mitigates symptoms of the disability. While the tenant or owner does not need to disclose the disability, he or she will need to provide documentation from a doctor or other health professional (therapist or psychologist).

The documentation is typically a note from his or her doctor. This link from the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law provides wonderful guidance on this exact issue. If you go to page six of the pdf, there is a sample letter (http://www.bazelon.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=mHq8GV0FI4c%3D&tabid=245). The letter would be the way you could verify the need for an emotional support animal. This page also has some more detailed information on many of the issues you raise. A non-profit organization called PetPartners also has a page of reference for animals in housing: http://www.petpartners.org/page.aspx?pid=489.

 

5. Can a person have more than one service or emotional support animal?

While there do not seem to be any cases dealing with the issue of multiple emotional support animals, the basic requirements for this reasonable accommodation would still be the same. In other words, if a person were claiming the need for multiple emotional support animals, then he or she would need documentation supporting this need from his or her physician or medical professional. The practitioner would need to provide documentation that each support animal alleviated some symptom of the disability.

 

6. Can the landlord charge me a pet/security deposit for my emotional support animal?

On the issue of deposits, the statute is unclear and no court cases have covered the issue for emotional support animals. However, most experts feel that requiring a deposit would be the equivalent of charging an advance damage deposit for someone in a wheelchair. While a landlord may be able to recoup reasonable fees for damage done after the fact by the tenant and his or her emotional support animal, an initial security deposit may go against the purpose of the law.

Note that there may be an issue of a tenant who becomes unable to properly care for his or her emotional support animal. If a tenant is neglecting his or her service or emotional support animal and it rises to a level where the animal is endangered, then it may become a criminal matter. Service and emotional support animals are not exempt from state animal neglect laws. If any animal is being neglected, local law enforcement or animal control can intervene. Moreover, a tenant would also be subject to all the other provisions of the lease, such as maintaining his or her residence in a sanitary manner.

 

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