Landlords and Assistance Animals

3 minute read

Landlords are required to make reasonable accommodations for tenants with disabilities who have assistance animals. To fully understand your rights and whether your pet qualifies, you must first understand how these terms are used in the Fair Housing Act (FHA):

When does the Fair Housing Act apply?

Certain rental properties are not covered by the FHA:

  • Buildings with 4 or fewer units, one of which is owner-occupied
  • Single-family homes rented without an agent, as long as the owner owns 3 or fewer properties
  • Housing owned by private clubs or religious organizations for their members

Most landlords must comply with the terms of the FHA.

What qualifies as a disability?

The FHA defines a disability the same way as another federal law, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): a physical or mental impairment that significantly limits a person’s major life activities.

This definition is intentionally broad, and includes both readily observable and invisible conditions, like depression, anxiety, diabetes, heart disease, mobility limitations, and more.

Active users of illegal substances are not considered disabled under the FHA. However, people who are recovering from drug or alcohol addiction are, and are protected by the FHA.

What qualifies as an assistance animal?

If you have a qualifying disability, an assistance animal is one that works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for your benefit, or provides emotional support for your identified disability.

Any type of animal regardless of breed or species can qualify as an assistance animal, provided it meets that definition. There are no official certification or training requirements.

What is a reasonable accommodation?

A landlord is required to make accommodations for a tenant’s service animal unless those accommodations impose an undue financial or administrative burden, threaten the health or safety of others, or pose a significant risk of physical damage.

This means landlords cannot enforce a blanket “no pets” policy against an assistance animal, but may still legally restrict a specific animal who has a history of damage, aggression, or nuisance. An animal likely to cause problems, like a horse in a studio apartment, can also be restricted.

It is a court who ultimately determines whether the tenant’s requested accommodation is reasonable, and the outcome can vary. For instance, although landlords are typically required to accommodate a pit bull as a service animal, if those accommodations would result in an unavoidable and extreme increase in insurance premiums, the landlord may be able to legally deny the tenant their dog.

Can a landlord require a pet fee?

A tenant may not be charged a pet fee or pet rent for their assistance animal, but a refundable security deposit to cover any damages is legal.

What are a tenant’s responsibilities?

A tenant is required to request a reasonable accommodation from their landlord in advance. Even if a pet would be considered an assistance animal under the FHA, if the tenant does not ask for the accommodation, they may still be in violation of their lease.

The tenant should also provide information to support that the animal provides assistance for their disability. It is not necessary to identify the disability or the task the animal performs, and a landlord cannot legally require that information. The tenant need only provide a letter from a medical or psychiatric professional saying that the animal assists with symptoms of a mental or emotional disability.

What happens if a landlord does not provide accommodations?

If a tenant believes their landlord or potential landlord is unreasonably denying accommodations for their assistance animal, there are options for filing a complaint:

  • File with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). More information is available on the HUD website.
  • File with your state’s housing discrimination authority. Many states have their own agency to investigate claims.

Consult with an attorney to explore your options fully, and to ensure you fully understand your rights.