Assistance Animals

Assistance Animals and Liability: Dispelling Myths and Misconceptions

    Property teams have historically experienced a fair share of reasonable accommodation requests for service and support animals. The frequency of these requests continues to climb, making it even more critical for teams to distinguish between fact and fiction when attempting to navigate them.

    While understanding the nuances between service and support animals, the specific questions that can be asked, and proper protocols for handling the requests are paramount; property teams should also understand the context behind the uptick in requests. Reasonable Accommodation Requests for Assistance Animals spiked 200% from the four-year period of 2015 to 2019, as compared to the preceding 20 years.

    According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 61 million U.S. adults live with some type of physical disability. That equates to roughly 26% of the population, and naturally, disabilities are especially prominent in those aged 65 or older. In a 250-unit apartment community, for example, an average of about 65 homes would contain at least one adult resident with a physical disability. Keep in mind that these figures do not even account for those with mental and emotional disabilities, which also result in many accommodation requests.

    A recent mental health study by the National Apartment Association reveals that 40% of respondents took time off within the year before the study because they did not feel emotionally capable of adequately performing their job duties. While that survey is specific to the rental housing industry, it should be noted the country as a whole had a near exact rise in the number of people who were experiencing mental health challenges, rising from one in ten to four in ten post-pandemic.

    Couple the disability-related requests with a few bad actors who aim to sneak in a pet under the guise of it being an assistance animal—usually in an attempt to escape fees or breed bans—and it becomes apparent why properties are often inundated with accommodation requests.

    Here’s a look at what you need to know to successfully navigate a reasonable accommodation request – which essentially asks for a change, exception, or adjustment to a rule, policy, or practice.

    Service vs. support animals

    Both fall into the general category of assistance animals and are often thought to be one and the same to the untrained eye. However, separate parameters govern how properties must approach each type of request, with the rules for service animals being a bit more specific.

    Service animals must be trained to perform tasks that benefit an individual with a disability, such as a guide dog or a dog that retrieves items for a wheelchair-bound individual. Service animals must be trained for a specific task, and property teams can only ask two questions: 1) Is the service animal required because of a disability? and 2) What work or task has the animal been trained to perform? Even these questions are not permitted if the disability is obvious, such as a seeing-eye dog. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) specifically limits a service animal to a dog or a miniature horse. Most states’ laws mirror the federal definition of a service animal. One notable exception is California, where its definition is broad enough to include any type of animal trained to perform a task for the benefit of the disabled individual.

    Support animals can be any type of animal, trained or untrained, and usually serve to offer emotional support, comfort, and companionship. For support animal requests, property teams may request reliable documentation confirming the resident has a disability and a disability-related need for the assistance animal.

    Unique animals

    HUD has specified a list of common domesticated animals, including dogs, cats, small birds, rabbits, hamsters, rodents, fish, turtles, and other small and commonly kept animals. The most recent HUD Notice indicates that any animals not included in this list are considered “unique animals.” This includes non-domesticated animals such as, but not limited to, reptiles (other than turtles), barnyard animals, or monkeys. HUD guidance says that the individual requesting accommodation has a “substantial burden” to demonstrate a need for a unique animal. The individual might provide supporting documentation establishing that a disability-related need cannot be met by a commonly domesticated animal, such as when allergies prevent the requester from utilizing a dog or cat. Further, if the animal is of a barnyard variety, property teams can stipulate that the requester must apply to live in housing with a fenced-in yard.

    Restrictions don’t apply

    If a reasonable accommodation request is deemed valid, it supersedes pet-related restrictions a property has in place. This is true whether it falls on a community’s banned breeds list, exceeds the pet-weight threshold—or even if the property doesn’t allow pets at all.  The accommodation request must be honored, and the animal must be permitted to live at the property. Additionally, no pet deposits or fees can be charged for the assistance animal.

    Managing the request process: dos and don’ts

    According to PetScreening data, 6 in 10 reasonable accommodation requests do not meet the HUD guidelines for assistance animals in housing. That is not an anecdotal figure, as it includes the evaluation of more than 750,000 requests. In some cases, the requester’s disability can be proven, but the need for the animal cannot. Sometimes, the requester is not documented or known to have a disability. The key takeaway here is that less than half of accommodation requests meet the requirements, so effectively managing them is paramount.

    Operators are strongly recommended to treat each request as valid—even if it seems far-fetched at the outset—and establish a defined set of protocols to process the request. Properties should make it an interactive process engaging in a good-faith dialogue with the requester and set a 10-day timeline for responding to the request. Additionally, property teams should accept any documentation support-animal requesters would like to offer rather than require them to fill out their own in-house document. They can also choose to outsource the requests to third-party services that can seamlessly manage the process.

    Navigating reasonable accommodation requests would be a more straightforward proposition if 98% of them met the HUD guidelines, but that’s not statistically realistic. If that were the case, this would likely create a rubber-stamp process. However the spiking volume of requests has a wide range of potential outcomes and should be managed accordingly. Each request must be reviewed individually, considering the unique facts and circumstances in each and every instance. Properties that maintain a consistent process following the HUD guidelines and thoroughly understanding the various nuances will best position themselves for success.