Pet owners

A landlord’s guide to emotional support animal letters

Sarah Smith
February 2, 2023

    As a landlord, you know that allowing pets onto your property comes with several important considerations, from the opportunity for higher rent revenue and the ability to attract a larger pool of tenants to potential property damage.

    But what happens when one of your current tenants — or a future tenant — doesn’t have a normal pet but an emotional support animal (ESA) and comes to you with an ESA letter from a therapist or other healthcare professional?

    What are your rights? What are your legal obligations? How can you verify an ESA letter? How are you supposed to respond to the tenant?

    Conversely, what if you are that tenant? What rights do you have when it comes to your support animal?

    PetScreening is here to help make things simple by exploring everything you need to understand about ESAs and ESA letters. With this guide, you can ensure you’re adhering to federal laws and handling the situation with the delicacy it needs. 

    What is an emotional support animal (ESA) letter? 

    Before delving into the essential information landlords need about ESA letters, we’ll discuss what legally constitutes an ESA (emotional support animal).

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    An ESA is an animal that provides a specific therapeutic benefit to support the mental health and major life activities of people suffering from debilitating physical and mental disabilities, such as:

    • Depression
    • Stress
    • Severe anxiety
    • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
    • Bipolar disorder

    An ESA isn’t the same as a pet or service animal. It has its own category under the law. To obtain legal classification as an ESA, a licensed mental health professional can “prescribe” the animal to a patient in the form of a letter.

    Professionals who can prescribe an ESA include:

    • Psychologists
    • Psychiatrists
    • Therapists
    • Clinical social workers

    As a housing provider, tenants who own an ESA should provide you with an official ESA letter from a licensed professional recommending their ownership of the ESA. 

    Likewise, tenants must obtain the proper documentation for their ESA and present this information to their landlords in a timely manner.

    While ESA letters can take many forms depending on the healthcare professional providing them, they’ll generally look similar to the example included below.

    An example ESA letter from a doctor.
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    In addition to information from a healthcare professional, ESA letters often include a note from the tenant. This note will inform the tenant’s housing provider about the ESA and ask for reasonable accommodation by allowing the ESA to live with them.

    Like the example above, the format and content of these notes will differ between tenants but may appear similar to the following example:

    An example ESA letter from a tenant.
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    What are my landlord rights, obligations, and the law regarding ESAs?

    The Fair Housing Act (FHA) is a federal law that protects people against discrimination while renting property.

    More specifically, the FHA protects tenants from experiencing housing discrimination due to factors like religion, race, sex, and any mental, physical, or emotional disabilities the tenant may have.

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    Property owners must be aware that this law prohibits landlords from the following: 1) refusing to rent to any tenant because of their disabilities AND/OR 2) refusing to make any reasonable accommodations the disabilities call for, including the presence of ESAs.

    In other words, even if you’ve established pet restrictions on your property, you can’t prevent an ESA-owning tenant from renting or keep them from having their ESA in their home.

    Additionally, you aren’t legally allowed to charge ESA-owning tenants standard pet deposits or pet fees. You also can’t apply any breed restrictions to ESAs like you can with ordinary house pets.

    However, there are some situations where you can legally reject a tenant’s request for an ESA.

    These cases generally involve an illegitimate ESA letter (we’ll cover those in more detail later) or an ESA request that’s no longer considered a reasonable accommodation.

    An ESA accommodation may be unreasonable if:

    • The animal is determined to pose a direct threat to the safety and health of others.
    • The animal’s presence causes an undue administrative or financial burden (typically in relation to insurance company breed restrictions).
    • The animal is illegal in your state.
    • The animal is too large for your property.
    • The animal is destructive to your property.

    These “unreasonable request” situations are typically rare and often require legal counsel to analyze the facts specific to each case.

    What should I do when a tenant provides an ESA letter?

    When you receive an ESA letter from a tenant, you may feel confused or uncertain about what to do, especially since many legal obligations surround the issue.

    While you can try to verify the ESA letter yourself, this is a complex and time-consuming process with several legal restrictions that can get you into a lot of trouble.

    For example, as a housing provider, you’re prohibited from discussing medical details with a tenant’s therapist. There are also several questions you can’t legally ask your tenants, including:

    • What their specific diagnosis is
    • How severe their disability is
    • If they take medication

    You’re also never allowed to ask for access to a tenant’s medical records.

    Because of this, it may be tempting to simply accept the letter and move on to other business.

    However, you shouldn’t automatically accept any ESA letter at face value, especially considering that around 60% of reasonable accommodation requests for ESAs don’t sufficiently meet federal guidelines.

    An infographic on ESA letter insufficiency.
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    As a tenant with an ESA, it is vital to acquire legal documentation for your animal. This protects you and your landlord and helps build a relationship of trust between you both.

    To keep yourself legally clear and avoid acquiring or accepting any insufficient (or downright fraudulent) ESA letters, it’s a good idea to rely on the help of a credible, third-party expert on the subject, like PetScreening!

    We offer a fast, easy, and secure way to review reasonable accommodation requests from your tenants, including ESA letters. The best part? It comes at no cost to you!

    How can I verify an emotional support animal letter from a tenant? 

    Though we highly recommend letting our experts at PetScreening take care of ESA letter verifications to save you time and potential legal hassles, there are a few ways you can check the validity of an ESA letter on your own, both as a landlord and a tenant with a newly obtained letter.

    However, we must emphasize the importance of handling the situation with the delicacy it deserves. Otherwise, you may end up in violation of the law and face severe consequences. But we’ll discuss those in more detail later.

    To personally verify an ESA letter as a landlord, you can:

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    1. Politely address your concerns with the tenant

    If you have concerns about a tenant’s ESA, politely bring it up with them and mention how you want to work together with them to alleviate any potential issues.

    It’s essential that you avoid raising any arguments or making any accusations that could cause your tenant to feel discriminated against due to a mental, emotional, or physical disability. 

    Going about this the wrong way can lead to a HUD investigation or even a lawsuit, and your comments can be used against you if your case ends up in front of a judge.

    1. Examine the ESA letter itself

    You can sometimes determine ESA letter authenticity by making sure the letter contains the necessary information and checking whether it’s accurate.

    For example, ESA letters should generally contain the following information:

    • Information about the ESA, including a note about their species and breed
    • The name of the tenant’s healthcare professional
    • The professional’s specialty and type of license
    • The issuance and termination dates of the professional’s license
    • Correct contact details for the healthcare professional (such as a business email address and phone number)
    1. Check the healthcare professional’s license number 

    You’re allowed to verify a license number and credentials by checking them online.

    You can quickly check this information by visiting your state’s website for the healthcare professional’s discipline. Each site should have a license search feature where you can input the professional’s license number. However, you may need more information for a search, including the individual’s full name.

    Suppose you still have doubts about an ESA letter’s authenticity. In that case, you might ask for supplemental information to confirm that any documentation submitted is authentic.

    As a landlord, what other information can I ask about an ESA? 

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    Most landlords collect basic information about every animal that will be on the property, including all pets and assistance animals. Some of the details that a landlord might collect for ESAs include:

    • The animal’s details, including its name, breed, and weight
    • Information about the healthcare professional’s licensing, credentials, and contact details (same as in the ESA letter)
    • The healthcare professional’s validation for ESA application approval
    • Information about the animal’s veterinarian, including their name, licensing details, and contact information
    • Information on the animal’s last vaccinations

    As a tenant with an ESA, you can also preemptively submit this information to your landlord with your request for accommodation.

    What can happen if I violate the FHA as a landlord?

    Say that a tenant believes you have discriminated against them as a housing provider because of their disability or rejected their right to reasonable accommodation. If so, they can file a lawsuit and an official complaint with HUD.

    In response, the HUD may launch an investigation against you, and a HUD attorney may litigate against you on behalf of the tenant.

    If you’re found guilty by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), you may face several penalties and be required to provide the following:

    • Compensation for the tenant’s out-of-pocket expenses, alternative housing, legal fees, and other damages, including pain, suffering, and humiliation.
    • Civil penalties ranging from $16,000 to $100,000, depending on the number of cases filed against you, the time span between the cases, and whether the Department of Justice (DOJ) is involved.

    To help you avoid these legal consequences and potential financial losses, we again recommend utilizing our animal portfolio management services

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    For additional information, you can explore our helpful HUD fact sheet and the other great resources available on our website. 

    FAQs about ESAs: What else do landlords need to know?

    Now that we’ve explored the essential information you’ll want to keep in mind as a landlord when handling ESA letters, let’s address some of the other common questions you might have about the topics we didn’t cover in the above sections. 

    What kind of housing does the FHA apply to regarding ESAs?

    The FHA covers most types of housing on the market. However, there are a limited set of exceptions and circumstances, including:

    • Housing operated by religious organizations
    • Owner-occupied buildings containing four units or fewer
    • Single-family residences rented or sold without an agent’s assistance

    Can a tenant have more than one emotional support animal?

    Under federal law, there’s currently no limit to the number of ESAs someone can have.

    As long as a licensed professional has discerned that each animal is necessary to  alleviate a symptom their patient experiences due to a mental, physical, or emotional disability, these animals can be classified as ESAs.   

    Can animals other than dogs or cats be emotional support animals?

    A diagram of different ESAs.
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    Yes, assistance animal designation isn’t limited to dogs and cats, though they are the most common types of ESAs. 

    Animals of any type can be an ESA, including rabbits, birds, rats, mice, snakes, and horses. However, for unique animals not commonly kept in households, HUD says that the tenant has a “substantial burden” to establish that the specific type of animal is necessary.

    Can a tenant acquire an emotional support animal after signing a lease?

    Yes, a tenant who has already signed a lease can acquire and bring home a verified ESA, even if their lease restricts pet ownership. 

    Where on a rental property can a tenant take their emotional support animal?

    Generally, tenants can bring their ESA to all areas of the premises the tenant is allowed to go to. However, the ESA must be in its owner’s care and control at all times.

    How quickly do landlords need to respond to ESA letters or requests?

    According to current HUD guidelines, landlords should respond to ESA letters and requests within 10 days.

    Can landlords reject ESAs if the animal is a restricted breed?

    No, like a service animal, an ESA isn’t confined to breed restrictions, and landlords can't deny a tenant housing because of that. Landlords also can’t deny a service animal or ESA based on a no-pet policy. 

    PetScreening is here to handle all your ESA letter and pet processing needs

    As a landlord, you have a legal obligation to understand the nature of ESA letters and how to handle them appropriately so that you can avoid major legal troubles.

    That said, addressing ESA letters effectively and following federal law can be a challenging, time-consuming hassle that you shouldn’t have to contend with alone.

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    By signing up with our team at PetScreening, you can step back and let us handle the hard part while also enjoying the opportunities we provide for boosted pet revenue — all at no cost to you!