The confusion around service, support and therapy animals is widespread, with different interpretations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Fair Housing Act, and Air Carrier Access Act. Federal and state laws may differ, so it is always best to consult the education, testing and enforcement entities in your area and/or seek qualified legal counsel. Landlords or property managers must consider any and all reasonable accommodation requests carefully before responding. (See Resources and Links)
Service animals are legally defined (Americans With Disabilities Act, 1990) and are trained to meet the disability-related needs of their handlers who have disabilities. Federal laws protect the rights of individuals with disabilities to be accompanied by their service animals in public places. Service animals are not considered “pets.” For more detailed information from the U.S. Dept. of Justice, click here: DOJ Policy Regarding Service Animals.
Companion, Comfort, Emotional Support Animal (ESA) or simply Support Animal – These terms are often used interchangeably in a request for reasonable accommodations. Under the federal Fair Housing Act, they may be interpreted to describe ‘‘animals that assist, support, or provide service to persons with disabilities.’’ (24 CFR Part 5)
“An animal qualifies as a reasonable accommodation if: (1) An individual has a disability, as defined in the Fair Housing Act or Section 504, (2) the animal is needed to assist with the disability, and (3) the individual who requests the reasonable accommodation demonstrates that there is a relationship between the disability and the assistance that the animal provides.”
Properly documented, these animals are not considered pets, are exempt from ‘no pet’ policies, and housing providers may not charge a pet deposit or equivalent additional fee.
Therapy animals – These animals provide people with therapeutic contact (often in hospital, hospice care, and even disaster settings), but are not limited to working with people who have disabilities. They are usually the personal pets of their handlers and work with their handlers to provide therapeutic services to others. Federal laws have no provisions for people to be accompanied by therapy animals in places of public accommodation that have “no pets” policies. Don’t get hung up on the terms people use; do your homework to understand your rights and responsibilities.
Multiple animals – “The Fair Housing Act does not specifically limit the number of service animals an individual with a disability may have. Requests for multiple service animals may be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. It is possible that housing providers may impose limitations if it can be demonstrated that an individual’s request for reasonable accommodation exceeds what is necessary for that person to have full use and enjoyment of the premises.” (Source: Pet Partners)
Damage, behavior and cleanup – Lease agreements may still hold tenants liable for damages caused by such animals and/or for unreasonable impacts to fellow tenants or neighbors. Tenants may still be expected to comply with local leash, kennel ordinances and/or laws involving animal waste.
Fraudulent claims – While the vast majority of reasonable accommodation requests involving animals are legitimate, some abuse does occur (although the presence of fraud in a segment of overall requests is no reason to deny a specific request).
Third-party professionals asked to write letters requesting a service, support or companion animal should not take the request lightly. Some disability rights advocates feel that fraudulent or frivolous claims undermine the credibility of the process and ultimately insult those whom this law was designed to protect. It is in everyone’s interest to maintain the integrity of this legal right.