Do you have an emotional support dog, cat, or another animal who helps you cope with the symptoms of an emotional or mental disorder? If so, you know how important it is to keep your ESA with you wherever you are. Having an emotional support animal with you at home can help you manage stress, anxiety, depression, and other effects of mental illness.
When you move to a different home or get a new emotional support animal, you may feel anxious about talking to your landlord, especially if the place where you live restricts pets. Even though an ESA is legally protected so that pet restrictions don’t apply, you may still feel worried about compromising your relationship with a landlord over your ESA dog or cat.
Read on to learn more about the rules that govern housing providers and assistance animals. Understanding these laws can help you know when and how to approach your landlord about accommodating your ESA.
What is the Fair Housing Act?
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) is federal legislation that prevents housing providers from discriminating against individuals on the basis of things such as gender, race, creed, or national origin. The FHA also protects people with disabilities, so landlords cannot discriminate against individuals due to physical, emotional, or mental disability.
The FHA covers people who need an assistance animal to mitigate mental or emotional disorder symptoms. As such, a housing provider may not deny a person’s application due to their disability. A landlord must make reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities, including allowing assistance animals to live with their owners for free.
Things to consider when approaching your landlord about your ESA
Wondering how and when to discuss your ESA with your landlord? Think about these issues first.
Determine when would be the best time to tell your landlord about your ESA. You have no obligation to do so before signing a lease. If you think a potential landlord would reject your application due to your disability (even though that action is illegal), you may want to protect yourself by waiting until after you sign the paperwork to disclose your ESA.
A landlord can ask for proof that you have the right to keep an emotional support animal. Your ESA letter is all you need to provide. It’s best to have this letter in your possession before talking to your landlord about your ESA.
While not legally required, it’s a good idea to do what you can to ensure your ESA causes minimal disruption. When possible, make sure your animal is clean, well-behaved, and entirely under your control, especially around other people.
4. Next Steps
Despite the explicit terms of the FHA, some landlords still discriminate against individuals with disabilities. It’s a good idea to have a plan in place if you experience this sort of discrimination. If you face the threat of eviction or have your housing application denied because of your assistance animal, you can fight back by filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Emotional support animal discrimination cases
Even though the FHA clearly prohibits housing providers from discriminating against individuals with disabilities, some landlords do anyway. If a person believes a landlord has discriminated against them due to a disability or an assistance animal, they can file a lawsuit against the housing provider. Here are some examples of ESA discrimination cases:
- An Air Force veteran won a lawsuit against a housing provider who tried to remove his ESA because it exceeded the complex’s pet weight limit.
- Multiple plaintiffs in North Dakota won a joint lawsuit against a property management company that charged tenants additional fees for their assistance animals.
- Colorado residents with disabilities won a settlement in a discrimination lawsuit against a housing authority that tried to charge additional pet fees for ESAs.
These are just a few examples of lawsuits where tenants have successfully sued housing providers for discrimination against ESAs.
How do you qualify for an emotional support animal?
To qualify for an emotional support animal, you must meet two conditions:
- Have a mental or emotional disability that is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual and diagnosed by a medical professional, such as a physician, licensed mental health professional (LMHP), or licensed therapist
- Have mental illness symptoms that can be mitigated by the comforting presence of an emotional support animal
During an evaluation with an LMHP, you can discuss your symptoms so your healthcare provider can determine whether an ESA would help. If so, they can write an official ESA letter that serves as a prescription of sorts for an emotional support animal.
When to tell your landlord about your emotional support animal
You may tell your landlord about your ESA before or after signing the lease. If you think there is a chance that they may reject your application due to your need for an assistance animal, you may want to wait until after you sign all the move-in paperwork.
In some cases, you may not need to inform your landlord of your ESA at all. If your new home doesn’t have restrictions on pets or charge any extra fees for them, you may decide to let everyone assume that your ESA is a pet.
How to inform your landlord of your emotional support animal
Follow these steps to let your landlord know about your ESA.
Step 1. Get the facts about emotional support animals and ESA letters
It’s essential to understand what an emotional support animal is (and isn’t). You should also ensure you know what you need to do to qualify for one and how to get the documentation you need to show that your ESA is legitimate.
Emotional support animals are a type of assistance animal. They provide a comforting presence that can help people cope with the symptoms of emotional and mental disabilities. These are some of the mental health conditions that an ESA can help with:
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Panic disorder
- Bipolar disorder
This list is not exhaustive – other mental and emotional disorders may qualify for an ESA.
Emotional support animals are not the same as service animals. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) recognizes service animals as dogs who have been specially trained to perform specific tasks for owners with disabilities. Service dogs have full access rights everywhere – they may accompany their owners in any public space or business. Emotional support animals, on the other hand, do not have any special training. Their legal protections primarily relate to housing, though some travel providers accommodate ESAs as well.
For your animal to be legally recognized as an ESA, you need to have the proper documentation: an official ESA letter. This letter must come from a licensed medical professional. It’s similar to a prescription – the letter indicates that your healthcare provider recommends an ESA as part of the treatment plan for your diagnosed mental or emotional disorder.
The letter is the only thing you need to prove your animal’s ESA status and be protected under the FHA. There is no need to register or certify your ESA. There is no official database or registry of emotional support animals. Websites and organizations that offer to “certify” or “register” your ESA for a fee are scams.
To get an ESA letter, you need to be evaluated by a qualified mental health expert. There are several types of medical professionals who can write legitimate ESA letters:
- General physicians
- Licensed therapists
- Licensed clinical social workers
- Licensed mental health professionals, including psychologists and psychiatrists
The healthcare provider who evaluates you and writes your ESA letter must be licensed in your state. The letter must include all relevant details: your full name, a diagnosis of your condition, a recommendation for an ESA, and your LMHP’s license number and signature. It should be written on official letterhead and dated.
If you don’t yet have a healthcare provider treating your mental illness, you can go through Pettable and get connected with an experienced mental health expert authorized to write a legitimate ESA letter. Before you can get your letter, you must complete a consultation with your LMHP so they can evaluate your condition and determine whether an ESA would help you.
Step 2. Research ESA housing laws
Before you initiate communication with your current (or potential) landlord, make sure you understand your rights and their responsibilities under the Fair Housing Act. You have the right not to be discriminated against due to your disability or your need for an assistance animal. You have the right to reasonable accommodation for your disability from your housing provider.
There are only a few types of housing that are exempt from FHA rules:
- Single-family homes that are sold or rented without a real estate agent
- Buildings with fewer than five units, one of which is occupied by the owner
- Units used by members of the organization or private club that owns the housing
FHA rules apply to all other types of housing. Despite these laws, there are still landlords who reject applications from individuals with disabilities or refuse to make reasonable accommodations. If you have a solid understanding of FHA rules, you may find it easier to know when you are being discriminated against and how to respond.
The FHA also explains your responsibilities for documentation. It is your responsibility to provide proof of your right to have an emotional support animal with a legitimate ESA letter.
Once you have provided this document to your landlord, you don’t need to do anything else to prove that you and your ESA deserve reasonable accommodation from your housing provider. Your landlord cannot require you to disclose additional details about your medical history, disability, or need for an assistance animal. You also don’t need to provide any sort of “certification” for your ESA. Assistance animals don’t need to wear official vests, collars, or tags designating them as ESAs.
While the FHA is a federal law that applies in all states, your state may have specific requirements for your ESA letter. Additionally, some medical professionals don’t have much experience with mental illness diagnosis and treatment. For example, a general physician may not know a lot about assistance animals and how they support people with mental and emotional disabilities. This is why it’s essential to find an LMHP who is familiar with your state’s laws and has experience drafting ESA letters.
If you don’t yet have a healthcare professional helping manage your mental health, the easiest way to find one is through Pettable. You’ll get connected with a caring LMHP with the experience and knowledge to diagnose your condition and write an official ESA letter.
Step 3. Discuss your ESA with your landlord
Once you understand the applicable housing laws and have your official ESA letter, you are ready to talk with your landlord about your ESA. However, you may not need to have that discussion at all. In some cases, you may be able to keep your ESA in your home without telling your landlord.
Even though your ESA is not a pet per se, you might not need to designate them as anything other than a standard domestic animal. For example, if you are moving into a place with no restrictions on pets, you may not have to declare your animal as an ESA. You can keep your ESA in your home just like other tenants do with their pets. However, if your housing provider charges additional fees for pets, they cannot do so for ESAs. As such, you may want to provide proof of your animal’s ESA status to avoid paying additional rent or cleaning fees.
If you do decide that it’s necessary to let your landlord know about your ESA, prepare for the conversation by getting your official ESA letter. An ESA letter written and signed by a physician, LMHP, or licensed therapist is the only document you need to get legal protection for your ESA. Once you have that, you can rest assured that you and your assistance animal are verified.
It’s important to be aware that some online organizations provide fake ESA letters. These documents are scams, and they do not offer any legal protection for your or your assistance animal. There are several indicators of a fake ESA letter:
- It’s a generic document without any of your personal information.
- It doesn’t include a diagnosis of your mental or emotional disability.
- It is not written on an LMHP’s or physician’s official letterhead.
- It doesn’t include the medical provider’s license information or signature.
- It’s not dated.
Make sure you get a legitimate letter by going through a trustworthy online service.
When it’s time to meet with your landlord to discuss your ESA, do everything you can to keep the conversation positive and productive. Avoid aggressive phrases and body language. Use a calm and professional manner, and have a copy of your ESA letter ready. If your landlord objects to your request, stand firm. If you are unable to reach a resolution with your landlord, you may take the next step of filing an official complaint with the HUD.
Can landlords deny emotional support animals?
In general, the FHA prevents landlords from denying emotional support animals. To do so would be to discriminate against an individual with a disability and a need for an assistance animal. A housing provider’s restrictions on pets do not apply to emotional support animals.
There are a few circumstances in which a landlord may be able to deny an emotional support animal. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines these exceptions. According to the HUD, if the housing provider can prove that allowing your ESA would “change the fundamental nature” of their business, they may have the legal right to refuse your request. Other exceptions in the FHA are if an ESA would “present a risk to the health and safety of others” or “impose an undue financial and administrative burden” on the housing provider.
In practice, there are few (if any) cases when a landlord could use these exceptions to deny an ESA dog, cat, or bird. It may be easier for a housing provider to deny an “exotic” emotional support animal, such as a goat or pig. However, if you feel that your landlord is denying your ESA outside of the exceptions allowed in the FHA, you may file a complaint with the HUD or initiate a lawsuit.
Commonly asked questions
Read on to get answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about emotional support animals and housing.
What are an ESA owner’s rights under the Fair Housing Act?
Under the Fair Housing Act, an ESA owner has the right to not be discriminated against by a housing provider based on their disability or need for an assistance animal. This means that a landlord may not reject your application because you have a disability or an ESA. A housing provider must make reasonable accommodations for you and your assistance animal, and they may not charge additional fees for your ESA.
How much do I have to tell my landlord about my ESA?
The only details you need to provide your landlord about your condition and your emotional support animal are those in your official ESA letter. Once you give it to your landlord, you do not need to provide any additional information.
Can apartments charge for emotional support animals?
No. The FHA prohibits housing providers from charging additional fees for assistance animals, including ESAs.
Can a landlord refuse an emotional support dog based on breed?
No. Under the FHA, assistance animals are not subject to breed restrictions from a housing provider or local ordinance. For example, FHA rules allow you to keep a Pit Bull as an ESA even if the city you live in doesn’t allow residents to keep Pit Bulls as pets.
Can a landlord ask for proof for my emotional support animal?
Yes. A landlord can ask to see an official ESA letter signed by an LMHP. Once you have provided this, the landlord cannot ask for additional proof.
Can my landlord ask me to register or provide registration proof for my ESA?
No. There is no official registry or registration process for emotional support animals. Your official ESA letter is all the proof you need to qualify for protection under the FHA.
Do I have to disclose my disability to my landlord?
If you are seeking legal protection under the FHA, you may need to disclose your disability to your landlord in the form of your ESA letter.
Do I have to let my landlord know that I have an ESA before signing a lease?
No. While your landlord may appreciate it if you inform them of your ESA up front, there is no legal requirement for you to do so before you sign the lease.
Do landlords have to allow emotional support animals?
In most cases, yes. The FHA covers a person’s right to keep an assistance animal with them in their home. As such, landlords must allow ESAs even if the housing complex doesn’t allow pets. The HUD provides additional details about assistance animals on its website.
Prepare to discuss your ESA with your landlord
Getting permission to have an emotional support animal in your home can seem stressful. However, the Fair Housing Act gives you specific legal rights, and you don’t need to be afraid to exercise them.
A legitimate ESA letter is proof that your emotional support animal is part of your doctor-managed treatment plan for your mental or emotional disability. This letter is all the evidence you need to supply to your landlord. Planning ahead and getting your letter through Pettable ensures you are ready for your next move with your emotional support animal.