Understanding the Rules for Companion Animals

Did you know that companion animal rules also apply to persons who are associated with the tenant?

A Nevada landlord is facing discrimination charges after telling his tenants that a frequent visitor could not bring his emotional support dog onto the rental property.

Recently, there have been a number of news stories regarding landlords who have been accused of discrimination because of their pet policies.

These cases highlight confusion over the companion animal rules. Part of that confusion stems from the fact that these situations are resolved on a case-by-case basis, making it more difficult for landlords to adopt a uniform policy.

Here are some commonly asked questions and answers concerning companion animals:

Do small landlord businesses have to follow the companion animal rules?

Companion animal laws come from both the federal Fair Housing Act and its prohibition against discrimination on the basis of disability, and from state and local laws that do the same thing. According to HUD, the FHA applies to most landlords, except those properties which are owner-occupied with four or fewer units.

The state rules are usually more strict. For instance, a state may only exempt owner-occupied properties. It’s important to find out if there are any state or local laws regarding companion animals.

When a local housing authority is investigating a charge of discrimination, they often rely on regulations interpreting the FHA, so it’s important for all landlords to know those rules, too.

HUD is the agency of the government that oversees the FHA. The Department of Justice is also involved in prosecuting FHA cases.  Companion animals are considered a “reasonable accommodation” for a person with a disability.

When a tenant or rental prospect complains about discrimination, the landlord may not know about it right away. It is common for the housing agency or for HUD to send in fake applicants called testers to try to catch the landlord in the act of discrimination. These testers will adapt a profile — like a disabled person with a companion cat, and record the communications between the landlord and tenant.

It is critical for a landlord to know how to deal with companion animal requests, and to treat all requests in the same way.

What is a companion animal? Is it the same as a service animal?

A companion animal is an animal that is prescribed for a tenant with a disability to treat the disability, including helping the person cope with the disability. While technically that’s not the same thing as a service animal, under the Fair Housing rules, the distinction does not matter — both have to be allowed into the rental property if prescribed for a tenant with a disability to assist with that disability.

While this distinction isn’t important to HUD, it is very important to a landlord. While service animals may undergo rigorous training which includes the socialization skills the animal needs to live in a rental environment, a companion animal may not receive any training at all. 

There appear to be no restrictions on how the tenant chooses the individual animal, or what type of animal the tenant can choose.

However, it is illegal for a landlord to question the tenant regarding the training level of the companion animal.

Can anyone “prescribe” a companion animal for the tenant?

The fair housing rules provide great leeway regarding who can prescribe a companion pet. The person does not have to be a doctor. They simply need to be ”qualified to treat the disability”, and the animal must be useful in the treatment of the disability, typically by providing emotional support. There are no specific licensing  requirements or skills that the person must possess.

What do you do when another tenant is allergic or has asthma?

HUD suggests looking at these situations on a case-by-case basis. A landlord is not allowed to deny a request for a companion animals based on fears that this situation may occur in the future. If faced with an actual situation, the landlord who denies the request for the animal still may be investigated for discrimination. The landlord can raise defenses at this point, including documentation proving that the other tenant would be harmed, would have to move out,  or that the landlord would suffer some specific financial hardship if they grant the request for the animal.

Can I charge a pet deposit or pet rent to cover the damage the pet may cause?

No. The companion animal is not considered a pet, therefore the landlord cannot charge any addition funds — a deposit, higher rent, pet rent, or change the conditions of the lease for the tenant with a disability who requests a companion animal.

Can I apply my pet rules to the companion animal?

The landlord must modify any existing pet policies, whether a “no-pets” policy or restrictions on the type, size or other factors regarding the pet. The companion animal is legally not a pet.

However, local or state rules which govern animals in residences likely still apply. This means that if your city has a ban on pit bulls, the companion animal cannot be a pit bull. (One local HUD division representative indicated that they have received complaints from tenants who wish to have pit bulls as companion animals.)

If the city or state regulates the number of animals, or the animal’s droppings violate the law, HUD’s position so far has been that the landlord does not have the right to waive those local laws — only their own policies.

Can I deny the request for a companion animal?

The landlord can deny the request if the person making the request is not legally disabled, if the animal is not prescribed for treatment of that specific disability, or if keeping the animal creates an undue burden, like harming others, forcing the landlord to break the law, or causing a significant financial burden the landlord.

Landlords must be very careful not to apply their own standard on determining whether a companion animal is justified. An Oregon landlord was sued for denying a request for a companion dog consistent with a no-pets policy. The tenant suffered from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, arthritis and fibromyalgia. The landlord told the tenant that a dog would only be justified if she were blind; however, he would allow her to have a fish or a bird.

Can I require documentation before I decide whether to allow the animal?

If the disability is obvious, and therefore the need for the animal is obvious, a landlord is warned not to ask for specific documentation or otherwise burden the tenant.

However, if the disability is not obvious or not known, the landlord can ask for simple verification of the disability and the need for the animal as treatment if that link is not obvious. For instance, if a tenant who is in a wheelchair asks for a companion animal, the link between the disability and the animal may not be obvious. In that situation, the landlord could ask for some verification.

A letter from the person treating the disability stating the animal is necessary is considered sufficient documentation.

What do I do if the animal causes damage?

HUD’s position is that any other remedies that are available under the lease agreement  generally will be enforceable. That means that the landlord should be able to deduct damage from the general security deposit, or pursue a tenant for the damage in court, regardless of that person’s disability.

The tenant is generally expected to clean up after the animal and provide for its day-to-day care, subject to any local laws regarding the care and maintenance of an animal.

 

This post is provided by Tenant Verification Service, Inc., helping landlords reduce the risks of renting with fraud prevention tools that include Tenant Screening, Tenant Background Checks, (U.S. and Canada), as well as Criminal Background Checks, and Eviction Reports (U.S. only).

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Disclaimer: The information provided in this post in not intended to be construed as legal advice, nor should it be considered a substitute for obtaining individual legal counsel or consulting your local, state, federal or provincial tenancy laws.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

pamela March 19, 2012 at 3:49 pm

What about if the companion or service animal is for the child of the tenant. Technically the child does not sign the lease, in Indiana, do the same rules apply?

What are the questions you can ask about the animal?

Can you ask the previous landlord any questions about the animal? Are they obligated to answer? If so, what questions would they be?

Chris March 19, 2012 at 6:50 pm

Pamela,
If the animal is for the tenant’s child, the same rules apply. In Indiana, or any individual state, the Fair Housing Act still applies, along with any state law which could be more restrictive (tenant-friendly). You can’t ask questions about the animal, except whether it is prescribed for the tenant’s specific disability. I don’t believe you can deny the tenant’s request based on information received from a previous landlord, except for maybe if it relates to the tenant’s legal right to have the companion animal, or if that landlord incurred a huge expense because of it — if you deny the request based on a reference you may still have to explain yourself to the housing authority. Hope that helps. Chris

Michael Elmore June 7, 2012 at 3:02 pm

In California as a landlord can you require prospective or current residents to provide documentation of the animal being a “companion animal”?

Kelsey February 24, 2013 at 9:47 pm

I am a renter in Montana and I am curious… If a married couple both qualify for a companion animal and each have doctor recommendations for one, are they required to “share” the animal? Or is it acceptable to have their own individual companions? I appreciate the help!

Chris February 25, 2013 at 9:07 am

Hi Kelsey,
Wow, that’s an interesting question. The companion animal rules tend to be viewed on a case-by-case basis, so the best advice is to speak with your local HUD office. That said, I’ve never seen a rule that says married couples have to share a companion animal if they both qualify individually. Keep in mind that the animal or animals cannot create a nuisance — for instance, two animals would need to get along! Thanks for reading, Chris

Leslie April 16, 2013 at 4:22 pm

What do you do when the tenant does NOT clean up or dispose of waste properly? In nebraska, According to City Ordinance 6.08.155: It shall be unlawful for any person having custody or control of any dog to place, deposit, discard, or dispose of feces or manure on public property or private property of another unless placed in approved garbage or refuse containers on public property or with the consent of the owner of the private property. This tenant is NOT doing this, what can I do as a neighbor?? I have complained to the landlord and they are “investigating” but I have seen NO ONE! What can I do? There are also NUMEROUS children in the area, this is a “companion dog” that is NOT trained, what happens if the dog bites some kid??? I understand medical need and all, BUT, there are OTHER tenants not just this individual. It would be fine if the waste was removed, and animal was NOT left out on a retractable leash, multiple times a day to do it’s business!!

Ann June 16, 2013 at 1:28 am

Hi. Do you have any further information on the case mentioned at the top of the article? Do you have a case number? Did the landlord or tenant’s visitor win the discrimination case? I’ve been searching the internet and Nevada courts for hours trying to find anything further on this case, which may set legal precedent. Please help!

william June 24, 2013 at 3:24 pm

Hey Chris,
I am in California and I about to receive my documentation for needing an animal companion due to my high levels of anxiety and stress and I live in an apartment building that has a no pet policy and we are on a month to month lease. If I do receive my documentation for the animal companion, all I have to do is tell the management company that I will be getting an animal companion (dog)? Can they legally give me and my roommate a 30 day notice to move out? Or do they have to accept that I am in need of the animal companion?
Thanks,
William

Chris June 26, 2013 at 1:50 pm

Hi William,
It’s hard to answer really specific legal questions. Very generally, though, a tenant will need to show that they suffer from a disability, and that the animal is prescribed by a health professional in order to treat the disability. A tenant remains responsible for the animal’s care and behavior — and any damage, but the landlord is not allowed to apply pet policies to this situation.

I’m a firm believer in good communication — let the landlord know what’s going on and hopefully he or she will understand the relative rights and responsibilities here. Best of luck, Chris

joyce July 12, 2013 at 9:19 pm

Hi William,
I’m in Rhode Island and I received my documents on 3/4/2013 for a companion
and I live in a no pet apartment but what I did was went to my landlord and asked for a small dog companion and she said that this was a no pet apartment and I said to her that I know that, but I have my documents from my mental health doctor so she had me to fill out a letter for a reasonable Accommodation and it suppose to only take 30 days for them to approve it or deny it so she took over 30 days and I continued calling and bugging so on 7/2/2013 I received my letter of approval and I had already picked up my toy poodle on 6/29/2013 don’t be scared to use your computer what ever you need to know just type it in and it will give you all the answers you want or need because when I came to the east coast I was depressed and did not know anyone so I went to the computer to find out how to have a pet in a no pet apartment and that’s where I got all my information and now I have my toy poodle im happen, the landlord cant deny you because it would be discrimination
good luck feel free to email me at anytime if I can be any assisstants to you

Maurice H July 15, 2013 at 4:15 pm

We have a companion cat which likes to go out at night, and now we have a new tennant underneath who claims he is allergic. Can the manager of the complex make us keep the cat inside, or can she still go out. It’s funny, he waited over 3 months to do it.

David Mendenhall July 22, 2013 at 7:43 am

We have rentals and received a request from a couple to see our rental that is available to be rented. It is a single family home in Oregon. The gentleman asked if we have a no pet policy. I said we don’t allow pet except for service dogs. He said they don’t have a service dog but have a companion dog for his wife who has anxiety. I asked what kind of dog do they have and he said a pit bull. He said the dog was insured in case it hurt anyone. We do not have any fence for our property and small children play in front of our rental since we have within our block about 12 children. We are afraid of liability that might arise as a result of allowing this pit bull in our rental. Since this is a companion dog and not a service dog I would think the breed of dog and the history that this breed has in terms of danger to others would be a major consideration in whether we have to rent to this tenant. Can you give any thought to this question. Thanks

Deborah Cassingham August 12, 2013 at 5:41 am

I would like to know if there is anything we can do about the number of pets allowed. My husband and I each have different issues. Over the years the only thing that has helped us is our companion cats. We have three, as one is the mother of the other two. I am very close to the two boys and my husband the female. Most places have a 2 pet max.

Clare Semer September 25, 2013 at 5:09 pm

Living in a condo in FL do we have to allow companion animals poolside and in the clubhouse? We have a no pet policy and feel that the animal must be allowed in the residence but why should all unit owners have to be in the company of their companion animal when enjoying the common elements owned by all. Is there any kind of direction that could be given on this matter.

JM January 13, 2014 at 4:12 pm

My landlord is trying to evict me because my companion animal caused damage to the rental? Is this legal?

Shuree February 24, 2014 at 5:13 pm

Hi all I am curious how many companion pets can you have with a pet companion letter?

Julia March 3, 2014 at 11:55 pm

My daughter is in a quad apartment at college, and her roommate is claiming ‘anxiety’ and bringing in a cat. the problem here is that my daughter gets asthma around cats – as in, wheezing, can’t breathe, need a rescue inhaler asthma.

Can her roommate really override my daughter’s lease and bring in a cat? I thought everyone in the apartment had to agree to changes in a lease? What about my daughter’s right to breathe?

Aleta March 16, 2014 at 8:51 pm

I am a landlord with a “no pets” policy. The tenant lived for almost three years without a dog, then in the last year of her tenancy, snuck a dog into her apartment without the written consent required by the lease agreement. Now, after our manager discovered that she had been keeping a dog in her apartment for two months, the tenant supplied a very brief doctor’s note stating that the tenant suffered from depression and needed the dog for support. She was given a 60 day notice, but the dog was only a small part of the notice as she and her children were disturbing the peace and two other tenants threatened to move because of the loud screaming and destruction of property of other tenants. Could the tenant be hiding behind the Fair Housing Act in order to keep the dog? She is suing for discrimination for violating the FHA on the grounds of the “support dog” and discrimination of her familial status.

Lupe April 3, 2014 at 3:26 pm

We have a building in Los Angeles, CA that have quite a few companion animals not service animals. Can we request that the animals be spayed and neutered, vaccinated and registered? Although we are not a federally funded building but do accept HUD assistance for some of the units do we have to follow federal guidelines?

Brandy April 7, 2014 at 7:44 am

Can a city deny a companion pet?

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