Talking to Your Landlord About Your Pet or Service Animal
What you need to know about bringing an assistance animal or companion pet into your apartment.
While some properties have restrictions, with some due diligence – and maybe a little convincing – you can ensure you and your favorite pet find a comfortable home. (Getty Images)
Many pet owners would go to extremes to ensure they can live at ease with their animals at their side. In fact, that’s most Americans – roughly 68 percent of U.S. households have a pet, which equals about 84.6 million households, according to a 2017-2018 survey by the American Pet Products Association.
But if you rent an apartment, condo or house, you may be subject to a few more rules than homeowners with pets have to navigate. Landlords can place limits on the type or size of pets residing on their property, and they can even prohibit them entirely.
The exception, of course, is when an animal is not a pet but rather an assistance animal the tenant needs to live comfortably. In this case, a tenant's right to keep an assistance animal is protected by the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination against people based on disability, among other protected classes.
The validity of many assistance animals – namely those designated as emotional support animals – has come into question over the last few years, particularly in public places such as airplanes and restaurants.
But when it comes to where you live, it’s important to know what rights your landlord has to limit animals living on the property, what your rights are as a tenant with a disability requiring an assistance animal and how to have a productive conversation with your landlord about pets and assistance animals. Here’s what you need to know when talking to your landlord about animals in your rental.
When it comes to allowing the typical companion animal, be it a pet snake, cat, dog or anything in between, a landlord can establish a policy for all tenants, restricting the type or breed of animal allowed, establishing registration and vaccination requirements and even charging additional deposits, fees or rent.
For properties managed by Intempus Realty in the San Jose, California, area, pet owners pay a higher security deposit, but they don’t have to pay additional fees or pet rent, says Eugene Korsunsky, president of Intempus Realty.
But the pet policy for each property is ultimately determined by the individual landlord. Many landlords establish their policies based on previous experience, personal preference or even pet allergies, he says.
Insurance policies may also establish restrictions on dog breeds or animal types allowed on the property. To avoid higher premiums or the threat of losing insurance coverage, many landlords strictly follow their insurer’s recommendations, from prohibiting dogs above 25 pounds or certain breeds to forbidding reptiles or other exotic pets.
The Assistance Animal Exception
For individuals requiring the assistance of an animal in the home, however, there is an exception. Landlords must permit tenants with assistance animals, as long as the animal does not require excessive accommodation and does not pose a threat to anyone else on the property.
An assistance animal covers two types, according to Michael Skojec, senior counsel at Ballard Spahr LLP, a law firm specializing in litigation on behalf of property owners, developers and property management regarding real estate and fair housing: “It could not only be a service animal that is trained to perform a certain function, but it could be an emotional support animal, which has no special training and just provides comfort by being with the person.”
Service animals are most often dogs and, occasionally, miniature horses, which are both established under the Americans with Disabilities Act as animals that cannot be restricted in public places. Emotional support animals, on the other hand, can be any type of animal a health professional considers therapeutic for the patient, be it a dog, cat, gerbil or peacock.
[Read: How to Break Your Apartment Lease.]
With an assistance animal, the landlord is required to waive any pet deposit, monthly pet rent or other related fees stipulated in a pet-friendly property’s policy. While this may include a pet security deposit, keep in mind that you’re not exempt from paying for any damage your animal may cause. So if your emotional support dog has a habit of chewing on the baseboards in the living room, it’s reasonable to expect the landlord will remove a portion of your security deposit to pay for those repairs.
Additionally, a landlord can still require any assistance animal be up-to-date with vaccinations. This measure is not just for the safety and security of everyone else on the property, but for insurance purposes as well.
However, assistance animals remain exempt from pet policies that prohibit certain breeds, including mastiffs, Akitas and Siberian huskies.
“Breed restrictions are not allowed for assistance animals, and even if [as the landlord] you think, because of the breed or because it’s a big dog, that the animal may be dangerous, that’s not sufficient,” Skojec says.
Talking to Your Landlord About Your Assistance Animal
When it comes to discussing your assistance animal with your landlord, the trickiest part is when neither party is sure which information should be provided and what remains confidential.
To protect your rights under the Fair Housing Act, you are not required to disclose the disability the service animal or emotional support animal is meant for. “They just need to know the person is disabled, not what the disability is, and that the animal is needed to address their disability. Those are the two prongs that the health care provider needs to attest to,” Skojec says.
The landlord may have his or her own form for your health care professional to fill out, as well as proof of local licensing and recent vaccinations. When the form isn’t fully completed or it takes longer than desired, there have been cases where the tenant ultimately feels unwelcome due to threats of eviction or application denial, or repeated requests to the point of harassment, Skojec explains, which, in these types of cases, is unlawful discrimination.
People suspecting discrimination in this or any form can report the situation to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which will investigate and determine whether to move forward with a lawsuit at no cost to the complainant. Skojec notes that the outcomes in these cases aren’t often intentional discrimination, but misunderstandings about what’s required of the landlord.
“The ultimate result is not necessarily payment of money, although sometimes there’s a little bit involved for the person who was harmed,“ Skojec says. “But there’s actually this opportunity to get a landlord who may not be as knowledgeable about the discrimination laws, to get them educated and sort of brought in line without either the landlord or tenant having to go through an elaborate court process.”
Talking to Your Landlord About Your Pet
If you have a regular pet, a hard-line pet policy in a bigger apartment building may be difficult to move past, but single-family rentals may be more likely to make an exception. “We always list our properties ‘no pets,’ [but] we actually like pets – it opens up to a bigger pool of potential candidates. Not every landlord goes for it, but we propose it,” Korsunsky says. It never hurts to inquire about an exception to a no-pets rule, especially when you come prepared with information about your pet to help plead your case.
Your best bet to be able to discuss changing a pet policy is when you’re leasing a house or condo from a landlord who doesn’t manage 40 different rentals. Come prepared with proof that your pet is up-to-date on shots, trained and unlikely to damage floors, doors and other parts of the house.
If the answer is still no, it may be time to look for a different rental option. Sneaking a pet into a no-pet zone typically backfires, and seeking a medical diagnosis when you don’t actually need an emotional support animal doesn’t help the case for those that truly need assistance animals.
To try to win a landlord over with your pet, come armed with evidence that the animal can be as good a tenant as any human – or better. Korsunsky recommends showing “pictures of the pet, previous rental history, those kinds of things.” And while Korsunsky’s company doesn’t require vaccination records or local licensing, it couldn’t hurt to show that your animal is appropriately documented and is under the care of a veterinarian.