VOLUME IXIs That Emotional Support Animal Legit?
By Melanie Green
Emotional support animals (ESAs) are rising in popularity, as more research recognizes the impact they have on people with mental health conditions. In addition to dogs and cats, doctors have approved lesser-known ESAs such as alligators, ducks and pigs.
However, it can be difficult for landlords to tell if someone has a legitimate ESA or simply a pet. Banning a tenant with an ESA could lead to legal action against the landlord. Fortunately, there are ways that landlords can fairly differentiate between the two to comply with the Fair Housing Act.

Pets and Service Animals
Service animals are not classified as traditional pets. While landlords can reject pets from living in a non-pet rental, they must not discriminate against people with disabilities by rejecting service animals and ESAs.

Service Animals Versus Emotional Support Animals
Service animals are working animals specifically trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities. These animals are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In Florida, individually trained service dogs and miniature horses can serve as service animals. In Texas, dogs are the sole option.

Because the Fair Housing Act does not regard service animals as pets, landlords cannot charge a pet fee for these animals. However, landlords can request a pet security deposit (onetime payment before moving in to be set aside in a separate account) to cover any damages the animals cause to the property. The tenant is responsible for at-fault damages regardless.

ESAs (ex. dogs, snakes, bearded dragons, cats) provide support to those with psychiatric conditions—although they are not specifically trained to do work for owners, and do not have the same access and protections as service animals.

In 2020, the Florida SB 1084 legislation clarified recognition of ESAs. To be protected for housing accommodations, tenants are required to prove their ESAs are legitimate. A credible healthcare practitioner must be able to certify that they have personal knowledge of the person’s disability and that they provided in-person care. The pet must also address a disability-related need that the practitioner treats.

Landlords Can Request Proof
Landlords do not have to accept that a tenant’s animal is an ESA without proof. Both Texas and Florida are included in the 22 states that have laws related to fraudulent ESA-related claims. Buying an official-looking ESA letter and vest from a company is not enough to verify the need for an ESA on its own, as anyone can order it without a prescription or doctor’s note. Some people who have a legitimate need and medical documentation may also purchase vests, certificates and gear from for-profit companies though.

To avoid confusion, landlords can request that tenants get a prescription letter from a credible health professional to justify allowing an ESA to live on the property. While the tenant does not need to disclose the nature of the disability, the note should clarify that it’s necessary.

If landlords have any further questions regarding whether that ESA clashes with the lease or the health document seems questionable, speaking with a local disability attorney can help avoid the risk of discrimination.