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Renters insurance and assistance animals

Fact-checked with HomeInsurance.com

Animals provide unconditional love and companionship as pets, but they can serve an additional important function as well. Assistance animals provide a range of essential service to their owners, from detecting dangerous medical conditions and helping with mobility to relieving depression and anxiety. In the United States, the Fair Housing Act (FHA) provides legal protections for those with an assistance animal to ensure their disability can be accommodated without being discriminated against or denied housing.

Unfortunately, the laws governing assistance animals aren’t always understood. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), nearly 60% of all FHA complaints involve disability accommodations, and recent years have seen a spike in complaints regarding assistance animals.

While landlords are entitled to determine their own pet policy, owners of rental properties can’t deny assistance animals or charge fees to those who have a legitimate need. But what exactly does the law define as a legitimate need, and how can those with assistance animals make sure they get the accommodations they’re entitled to? 

Let’s look at the legal protections regarding assistance animals in housing to better understand what rights renters with disabilities are entitled to under the FHA.

Legal protections for assistance animals

The HUD definition for an assistance animal is “an animal that works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or that provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified effects of a person’s disability”. The agency makes it very clear that assistance animals are not considered pets in the eyes of the law, which means that pet policies in rental properties don’t apply.

As such, no part of a rental pet policy can be enforced when the tenant has a verifiable assistance animal. For example, landlords can’t deny an assistance animal due to a no-pets policy, or if their pet policy includes restrictions on certain breeds. Landlords are also legally required to waive all pet deposits and fees for assistance animals.

How to get an assistance animal approved

Tenants are entitled to accommodations for legitimate assistance animals, but they are also obligated to provide adequate proof to their landlord that they do in fact have a documented assistance animal. 

The type of documentation required depends on the disability. For example, landlords can ask whether the animal is a dog that has been trained to perform specific tasks for someone with a disability, but they are not entitled to ask for details about the type of disability or specific diagnosis. 

Observable disabilities, such as blindness or requiring a wheelchair, are typically regarded as adequate proof of need for an assistance animal.

However, many disabilities that require an assistance animal are invisible. In this case, landlords are legally allowed to ask for documentation supporting the request for an accommodation, such as a letter from a healthcare professional or proof receiving disability benefits from a government agency.

Online certification websites that issue documentation for a fee by simply answering a few questions are not considered adequate documentation under the FHA.

If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or unfairly denied housing due to an assistance animal, there are a few resources you can contact for help and guidance:

Types of assistance animals

Assistance animals help people with needs and disabilities in many ways. While these animals can perform many different functions, the FHA recognizes two types: service animals and companion animals. The key difference comes down to the training that each animal receives.

Service Animals

Service animals are trained to perform one or more specific tasks for someone with a disability. Under federal U.S. law, service animals must be allowed to accompany their owner anywhere that the general public, customers, and members of a group are allowed. 

Guide dogs are the most well-known type of service animal, and the tasks they can perform include pulling wheelchairs, retrieving items and detecting the onset of medical episodes. The ADA lists several types of service animals, the majority of which are dogs. Examples include hearing or signal dogs, psychiatric service dogs, and seizure response dogs.

Companion Animals

Unlike service animals, companion animals do not need to undergo any training. They typically provide emotional support to people with certain mental health needs such as depression and anxiety. Companion animals provide an important service to their owner and are commonly used in clinical treatment plans, but they’re not entitled to the same protections as service animals. However, accommodations are sometimes required for companion animals in situations related to employment, air travel and housing. These are often dictated by local and/or state laws.

Can a landlord deny an assistance animal?

In the majority of cases, landlords cannot deny tenants’ assistance animals. However, there are two circumstances that could potentially be considered grounds for refusal. These are:

  • If the landlord occupies the unit being rented, and they or one of their immediate family members has an allergy to the animal.
  • The animal has been observed behaving threateningly towards someone, including biting or other aggressive behavior. Simply being a breed that is generally associated with aggressiveness does not count.

The takeaway

  • Under the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, assistance animals are considered a reasonable accommodation for individuals with disabilities.
  • Landlords cannot deny someone housing or charge them fees or deposits due to an assistance animal.
  • There are two types of assistance animals: service animals and companion animals. Both are protected under the Fair Housing Act.

If you have a service animal that has been trained to perform specific tasks or a companion animal that relieves symptoms of a diagnosed mental disability, the FHA entitles you to housing without discrimination.

Many landlords aren’t familiar with the legal protections granted to assistance animals under the FHA and the ADA, but the resources we’ve given here can help you navigate defending your legal rights as you look for a place to live. If simply pointing a property owner towards the applicable laws isn’t successful, know that you can always file a discrimination complaint with HUD.

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