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Pets, Service Animals, and ESAs: What to Know as a Landlord
May 10, 2023

Pets, Service Animals, and ESAs: What to Know as a Landlord

Animals are a topic that comes up quite often when people are looking for housing. Tenants must consider their pets when finding a place to rent, and landlords need to think about whether or not they are willing to risk potential damages. Many landlords opt against allowing pets. Others require an extra fee to be paid and will only allow certain sizes or breeds of dogs.

However, not all domestic animals that a tenant brings in are pets. There are two other types you need to consider – Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals (ESAs).

In Massachusetts, Service Animals and ESAs are protected under the Fair Housing Act, and as such, you are required by law to accommodate them. According to Mass.gov, “Under the Fair Housing Act, housing providers have obligations to make reasonable accommodations to allow assistance animals in housing, both in individual units and in common areas.”

Here are some things you, as a landlord, need to know about Service Animals and ESAs so you can both provide accommodations and protect yourself.

How are ESAs and Service Animals Different from Pets?

Pets are domesticated animals kept for companionship or pleasure. On the other hand, Service Animals and ESAs are assistance animals needed by a person with a disability. As such, they are not considered pets and are not restricted by typical pet rules.

Service Animals are typically dogs, though on rare occasions a miniature horse can be registered as a Service Animal. If you’re concerned about a badly-behaved dog chewing up furniture, barking constantly, or making a mess, you don’t have to worry – service dogs receive intensive obedience training as well as specialized training. They are taught to do specific tasks that their owner cannot do on their own, which makes them fairly easy to identify.

ESAs are companion animals that provide therapeutic benefits to those with emotional trauma or mental disabilities. They also aren’t limited to dogs, as rabbits, cats, birds, and other varieties of domesticated animals can be considered ESAs.

Service animal

Can I Ask for Proof of Disability?

Yes and no. You can ask for proof that your tenant’s service animal is “prescribed” by a medical professional, and usually they will give you a letter from their doctor stating that they have a disability that benefits from a service animal. For an ESA, you can ask your tenant for a letter from their therapist or mental health care provider.

However, you cannot ask your tenant about their specific disability or diagnosis, as medical details are protected information. In Massachusetts, Service Animal and ESA owners are not required to possess any certification or identification, either. Besides the letter from their doctor, they are not required to provide you with any other form of “proof.” To avoid landing yourself in legal hot water, it’s best to take them at their word and not pry.

Can I Charge a Pet Fee?

If you were thinking about charging a pet fee or deposit, under the Fair Housing Act, you cannot. That being said, the tenant is obliged to keep their Service Animal or ESA under control. They must also follow all applicable laws regarding vaccinations, noise disturbances, and picking up after them. You can charge a reasonable rate for any property damage done by the animal. You can also evict a tenant with a Service Animal or ESA if said animal turns out to be aggressive. However, it is best to get in contact with a lawyer who specializes in tenant rights before moving forward with this decision.

Pets might be a risk to a property, but Service Animals and ESAs are a benefit to your tenants. Knowing the difference and what rights they have is vital to providing the proper accommodations and maintaining good tenant-landlord relationships.

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