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Everything You Need to Know About Service Animals

August 28, 2019

Most people would agree that your dog is your best friend, or even family. You can’t wait to get home from work to that excitedly wagging tail. Yet, for some, their dog is not a pet, it’s their support system; their number one resource in case of an emergency. That’s the life of a service animal, a dog or a miniature horse that’s there to help a human with a disability. For example, someone who is blind may use a guide dog for navigation and assistance with chores. Someone with a hidden disability, such as crippling headaches, can train their helper to smell saliva composition fluctuations for chemicals associated with particular kind of migraine. So, even though they may not look different from a pet when not wearing their Service Animal vest, they are someone’s everyday hero.

What is a Service Animal

Under the American with Disabilities Act, a service animal is a dog or a miniature horse that has been trained to assist a person with a disability. Under the FHA or the Federal Housing Administration laws, landlords must make reasonable accommodations for both service animals and emotional support animals even in apartments that prohibit pets. This, among other things, is something called a reasonable accommodation. Such an adjustment or exception to a property rule which allows for a disabled tenant to fully utilize and enjoy the use of the property where they live, without undue hardship. Landlords are responsible for fulfilling reasonable accommodations at their own cost. Read more about it here.

Service Animal Rights and Regulations

As a landlord, there are certain laws and regulations you must obey when it comes to service animals. There are also rights that you and your property have.

First, according to the FHA, service animals are not subject to pet rent, fees, deposits, and restrictions. The service animal must be allowed on the property at no extra charge to the renter. 

The landlord may not inquire about the nature of the tenant’s disability, medical records, or ask the service animal to demonstrate their task. A landlord can, however, ask for documentation of the disability-related need for a service animal. For Emotional Support Animals, a tenant can request a letter from a licensed therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist stating they need an ESA to alleviate their symptoms.

In addition, the landlord may ask for vaccination records of the dog to make sure it's in good health and parasite-free. In some states, landlords can request a good health certificate from a licensed vet. A service animal may be denied and the tenant may be evicted if any of the following are true:

  • the animal is out of control and its handler does not take effective action to control it 
  • the service animal is not housebroken
  • the animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others that cannot be eliminated or reduced to an acceptable level of a reasonable modification to other policies, practices, and procedures. 

As a tenant, if you are still refused housing after providing legal documentation, you may file a discrimination complaint with HUD or directly with your state's agency that handles those cases. These rights protect both the tenant and the landlord. 

Emotional Support Animals vs Service Animals

Service animals are different than pets, but they are also not the same thing as emotional support animals. As we mentioned previously, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals are dogs or miniature horses that have been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the animal must be directly related to the person's disability. 

An ESA, on the other hand, is an animal (not limited to a dog or a miniature horse) whose main purpose is to provide emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship. Such animals have not been trained to perform a specific task, and thus are not granted any rights under the ADA law. The service animal must be permitted to accompany the individual with a disability to all areas of the facility where members of the public are normally allowed to go, which is not true for ESA’s. ESA’s do not have any public access rights. However, the two are oftentimes confused.

Common Misconceptions About Service Animals

There are few prevalent misconceptions that people who rely on service animals are constantly having to refute. 

1. The service animal must be certified.

That is not the case. There is no official certification or training for service animals and emotional support animals within the US anyway. 

2. Certain breeds cannot be service animals.

Breed and weight restrictions do not apply to service or emotional support animals. Landlords cannot require a pet deposit, however, the handler is liable for any damage the dog inflicts on the property. 

3. Private properties can overwrite federal law. 

Landlords reserve the right to refuse any pet, as long as it’s not a service animal. A service animal is not a pet. A landlord also cannot use your pet to discriminate against you.


Fake ESA and Service Dog IDs, vests and even doctor letters are more common than ever online. They are nothing more than a scam. A landlord can easily verify the validity of the medical documents. Remember to check the license number of the medical professional who issues the letters at the state's license bureau. They can also ask the tenants health professional to fill out a reasonable accommodation form.

Do not state that a pet that is not a service animal is one. Doing so can lead to serious penalties. Additionally, it is a disservice to people who actually need service animals.

For more information, visit the ADA National Network website.

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Angelina Bader
Angelina is a Marketing Specialist at Apartment List where she writes content on rental lifestyle. Angelina previously worked as a Russian and German language specialist at Facebook and Google, and has a BA in Applied Linguistics from UCLA. Read More

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