Emotional Support Animals: Housing Rights and Laws

Research has shown that animals can be very useful for people with disabilities. Not only the familiar seeing eye dog has become crucial in the lives of the blind, but also various types of animals are very useful in the lives of the emotionally ill. The truth is that pets are good for the overall health of the disabled. Research has shown that having companion animals reduces blood pressure and cholesterol and triglycerides.

How do pets help us emotionally? 1) Pets offer a soothing presence. In addition to lowering people’s blood pressure, people who are recovering from heart attacks recover more quickly and survive longer when they have a pet in their home. 2) Pets can give unconditional love and acceptance. A recent study of nursing home residents showed that residents felt less lonely with some time alone with a dog than a visit with both a dog and other residents. This means that the residents were actually happier with time with an animal than with time with people. 3)Pets alter our behavior. Let us say that you come home from work in a huff. The danger is that you might take out your frustration on the people who live with you. You tend to calm down when you interact with your pet first. This means that your behavior will be different when you meet your family. 4)Pets distract. Pets tend to take you into a different reality. All that they care about is their basic needs and love. This releases you from the frustrations of your life. 5)Pets promote touch. Touching your pet can soothe you. It is known that massage and touch release chemicals in your system that are beneficial for you. 6) Pets make you responsible. Taking care of a pet is a responsibility. Responsibilities tend to improve self esteem because they give us goals.

An emotional support animal (ESA) is one that an individual with a mental or psychiatric disability relies on to help them relieve some of the symptoms of their disability through companionship. For instance, a pet might serve as a companion for a depressed individual, alleviating their loneliness. Usually, an emotional support animal is a cat or dog, but the category includes other animals as well. There are laws in the United States that afford certain rights to people with ESA’s. Some of those laws regulate housing rights.

The following is a partial list of mental disorders that could qualify those who have them for ESA’s:

    Age-related cognitive decline

    Autism

    Depression

    Bipolar disorder

    Panic attacks

    Post Traumatic stress disorder

    Separation anxiety

    Social phobia

    Stress problems

    Schizophrenia

In addition to those disabled with a mental illness, there are some people with special needs that can qualify for an ESA.

What should be understood is that there is a difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal. A service animal has specific training to assist with tasks or work of the disabled person. An emotional support animal is used for general companionship and requires no special training. Unlike a service animal, an emotional support animal is not given access to places of public accommodation. Therapy animals are another category of animal that is not an ESA or a service animal. Therapy animals are brought into nursing homes, hospitals and schools to brighten the environment for residents, patients and students. Therapy animals are used by a non-disabled person in their work and are not granted the rights of ESA’s and service animals.

To be considered an ESA, a prescription from a physician or other medical professional is required. The patient is given protection under federal law if they meet the definition of disability and receive a letter from the doctor that verifies their disability. The animal that serves as an ESA does not need special training.

What should be noted is that not everyone who has mental illness is qualified to be prescribed an ESA. The illness or disability must be so severe that they experience substantial limitations on one or more major life activities.

Ordinarily, a landlord may restrict the space they are renting from animals. They may also put certain restrictions on how an animal may occupy the space.

The Fair Housing Act was originally part of the Civil Rights act of 1968. It provided protection from discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin or gender. In 1988, the Fair Housing Act Amendments expanded the categories of discrimination to include handicapped persons.

The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 requires the landlord or property manager to make a reasonable accommodation to their policies to allow the tenant to live with the ESA. This means that even policies concerning the species, breed and weight of a pet must be relaxed. An example of this would be that they must accept a dog, even if they ordinarily would only accept cats. A heavy dog must be accepted, and even breeds such as pit bulls.

Ordinarily, a landlord cannot refuse the request for an ESA. However, under certain circumstances they may refuse:

    The building has four or less units where the landlord occupies one of the units

    Single family housing sold or rented without a real estate broker

    Hotels and Motels

    Private clubs

The letter that the doctor writes must be on the doctor’s letterhead and state the disability that the patient has and the benefit that the patient would get from having the ESA. If the patient does not present this letter, and they say that their pet is an ESA, then they are in violation of federal law.

In addition to the doctor’s note, a letter of verification may be required from a medical or mental health professional that verifies that the patient has the disability. Once both these letters are received, a landlord may not refuse the ESA. If they do refuse the ESA, then they are discriminating against a disabled person and are in violation of federal law.

Landlords may also not:

    Require that the tenant pay any fees in exchange for allowing the ESA

    Require that the ESA be trained as such

    Ask for detailed medical records from the tenant

    Reject the ESA because of lack of insurance coverage

The disabled person does have some responsibilities, though. The disabled person may be charged fees for any damage that the ESA causes to their property. Also, if they don’t manage their ESA’s aggressive behavior, they can be evicted.

In case the landlord does not comply with the law, the disabled person may file suit against them for discrimination. Such a complaint is filed with the U.S. Justice Department. One way that the landlord may be exempted is if the accommodation for the ESA would cause an undue financial burden or cause a fundamental alteration of the premises.

Before you actually sue your landlord, it is wise to think about how that action will affect your relationship with them. Sometimes it is better to just move on to an apartment or living situation that is more amenable to ESA’s. Should you wish to pursue the case, you need to acquire the services of a qualified attorney. (housing guide)

With respect to a disabled person having more than one ESA, the requirement would be that the additional ESA alleviates some of the symptoms not alleviated by the first ESA.

Under the FHA, relief for violation may include actual and punitive damages, injunctions and attorney fees at the discretion of the court. For example, there was once a real case where a landlord wanted a tenant to get rid of a cat. He was threatened with eviction if he failed to do so. After the tenant proved that he was disabled, he filed a complaint claiming that the landlord had discriminated against him because of a physical and mental handicap. The judge found that the landlord had violated the FHA. She awarded damages and attorneys fees plus five thousand dollars for emotional distress and physical suffering.

Another law that is relevant to ESA’s is the Housing and Urban-Rural Recovery Act of 1983. Congress passed a rule under this act titled Pet Ownership in Assisted Rental Housing for the Elderly or Handicapped. This rule provides that owners and managers of federally assisted rental housing for the elderly or handicapped cannot prohibit or prevent a tenant from owning common household pets.

Finally, here are some suggestions that might help your case, even if you are not legally required to fulfill them: 1) Ask your neighbors to write a letter to the landlord or manager, saying that they are not bothered by the pet that lives in your home. 2) Create a pet resume with information that might make your landlord or board more comfortable with the pet because they will then have some familiarity with it. 3)Register your animal as an emotional support animal. Any certifications you can get to legitimize the animal in the eyes of others is a positive step. 4) If you live in a condominium, check to see that the rules regarding pets have been properly recorded and legally filed with the county where the development is located. 5) If other people in your building have pets, you can claim the affirmative defense of selective enforcement of the rules.

Should you need the services of an attorney, there are attorneys that specialize in animal law. It is always wise to pursue an attorney with the most specific specialization that relates to your case.