Pet owners

Fair Housing Act Emotional Support Animal Fact Sheet

Sarah Smith
February 2, 2023


    Let's face it. You rely on your Fair Housing Act emotional support animal. It relieves your anxiety and melts away your depression. Having a disability can be difficult, but having an emotional support animal by your side can help.

    But you don't own your own home, and you rent an apartment from a landlord. Your landlord doesn't want you to keep an animal - even an emotional support animal - on your rented premises, and this causes you stress. What can you do?

    You've heard you have rights around keeping an emotional support animal under federal emotional support animal housing laws, but you're not sure what they are.

    This article guides you through the rights and obligations of renters under the Fair Housing Act. It explains what you need to do to require a landlord to allow you to keep an emotional support or assistance animal on your rented property, even if the landlord has a "no pets" policy.

    What is the Fair Housing Act?

    The Fair Housing Act is a federal law that regulates discrimination by housing providers against renters in their homes. It governs, among other things, the relationship between landlords and renters with emotional support animals.

    For instance, if a renter with a physical or mental disability can provide an appropriate emotional support animal letter from a professional such as a medical doctor or therapist, then the landlord must make reasonable accommodations to house the animal.

    In that case, a landlord cannot charge the pets' fees or deposits they usually charge for the accommodation of pets because emotional support animals aren't classified as pets.

    Part of the act involves the protection of renters in situations where their landlords are refusing a reasonable accommodation request. In this case, a person with a disability who believes their landlord has unreasonably refused a reasonable accommodation request can make a complaint to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) through an online portal.

    The law relating to emotional support animals is administered by HUD, and applicants should direct their complaints to them if they think a landlord is not complying with the requirements of the law. PetScreening’s legal officer offers an accessible analysis of HUD’s latest notice setting out its position on the application of the law around emotional support animals.

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    What are emotional support animals?

    An emotional support animal provides assistance or emotional support for a person with a mental or physical disability that substantially limits at least one major life activity or bodily function.

    Emotional support animals aren't "pets"

    As mentioned earlier, your animal qualifies as an emotional support animal, and cannot be categorized as a "pet." Therefore, your landlord can't charge you pet fees or deposits, even if you’re a public accommodation renter.

    Emotional support animals are divided by the 2020 HUD notice as having two categories. Small domesticated animals such as dogs, cats, small birds, hamsters, gerbils, and turtles are in the category of “common household pets.” 

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    Other types of pets are in the category of “unique animals,” and the applicant will have a “substantial burden” to demonstrate the need for them. These ESAs might include snakes, pigs, or even llamas. In cases like these, there's a substantial burden on people with disabilities to demonstrate a disability-related therapeutic need for the specific animal.

    Of course, it's important to be practical. If landlords only have to make reasonable accommodations, it's unlikely that a landlord will be required to allow people with disabilities to keep pygmy goats in an apartment, even if it’s a legitimate ESA.

    The difference between an "assistance" animal and a "service" animal, such as a guide dog

    It's important to note the distinction between a service animal and an assistance animal, such as an emotional support animal. If an animal has to be trained to carry out its tasks (such as pulling wheelchairs, helping blind people to navigate the streets, protecting people with seizures, and opening doors for people, for instance), then they are called "a service animal." A different criteria applies to emotional support animals.

    Unlike service animals, such as guide dogs, emotional support animals aren't trained to do work or perform specific tasks.

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    Attitudes towards emotional support animals

    Attitudes towards emotional support animals are improving all the time. For instance, estimates that over 80% of people with emotional support animals agree that they are useful. Equally, about 50% of respondents believed that owning a pet was beneficial for their mental health.

    How many emotional support animals are there in the US?

    As of 2019, there were about 200,000 emotional support animals in the US. Given the mental health toll that the COVID-19 pandemic has had worldwide, it’s reasonable to guess that this number has gone up significantly since it was first published.

    What is a disability?

    The Fair Housing Act prevents discrimination against people with disabilities when it comes to housing. For emotional support animals, disabled persons are "individuals with medical or physical impairments that substantially limit one or more major life activities."

    What rights do people with disabilities have under the Fair Housing Act?

    Doctor's or therapist's letter

    To qualify for an emotional support animal, you must obtain a relevant letter from an appropriately qualified professional, such as a medical doctor or a therapist. You should schedule an appointment with your chosen professional and have an open conversation with them about your needs, concerns, and desires for emotional support.

    Reasonable accommodations

    Once you have an emotional support letter, you must submit it to your landlord, who's then required to make reasonable accommodations for your emotional support animal. For instance, the landlord can't regard your emotional support animal as a pet and so can't charge pet deposits or fees.

    There's an open question about whether the landlord can, as a condition, require people with disabilities to take out insurance with respect to their emotional support animal, which might cover third-party liability for damage to the landlord's premises, etc. 

    Arguably, such insurance doesn't amount to fees and deposits required of pets, and the taking out of such insurance might amount to "reasonable accommodation." It's possible that this point may need testing in the courts or be subject to a guidance ruling by HUD.

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    Number of emotional support animals one person can have

    There's technically no limit on the number of emotional support animals people with disabilities may have, although, of course, each animal will have to be covered by its own emotional support animal letter. 

    It might not be surprising, for instance, if a person with depression might need both a dog and a cat.  Additionally, two individuals living in the same household may each require their own individual ESA.

    Equally, give consideration to the concept of "reasonable accommodation" in this regard. It's unlikely, for instance, that a landlord would be required to accommodate a menagerie.

    What rights do landlords have under the Fair Housing Act?

    The animal must be an emotional support animal

    The animal must be an emotional support animal, and a valid emotional support animal letter must have been issued for it. 

    There are a number of required formalities for an emotional support animal letter. In particular, the letter must state that the animal owner has a disability that substantially limits one or more major life activities, and that's aided by the presence of an emotional support animal. The letter may, but isn't required to, mention a specific animal.

    The ESA mustn’t be too large or dangerous

    The animal mustn't be too large for the premises or be dangerous. 

    If a landlord can prove an animal (a) poses a direct threat to the health or safety of other individuals or (b) would result in substantial physical damage to the property of others, then they can refuse the accommodation. The animal must pose a direct threat that the person with disabilities can't reduce to an acceptable level through actions they might be able to take to control it.

    The ESA letter must be properly executed

    The relevant emotional support animal letter must be properly executed by a licensed medical doctor or therapist and must not be fraudulent.

    No administrative or financial burden

    The situation mustn't impose an administrative or financial burden on the landlord. For example, while some people have horses or other larger animals as their ESAs, it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect a landlord to build a stable or do home renovations that would allow a renter to keep such an animal on the property, even if they provide a valuable service.

    Payment for loss and damage

    The landlord can require a person with disabilities to pay for any loss or damage caused by the emotional support animal. If someone’s pet dog chews or scratches up a door, it’s on the renter to reimburse their landlord for the damages.

    Fraudulent and unsuccessful ESA letters

    Of the about 75,000 emotional support letters and assistance animal requests processed by PetScreening, only about 150 are fraudulent. But about 60% are unsuccessful due to incomplete information. Often, when an applicant completes their request, they realize they do not fulfill the criteria and categorize their animal as a pet instead.

    Do emotional support animals need insurance?

    The short answer is yes. 

    Additionally, the owner of an emotional support animal should seriously consider taking out third-party liability insurance. This is especially true because landlords can require that owners pay for any damage to third-party property caused by the emotional support animal.

    While shopping for insurance, keep in mind some insurers might regard certain breeds of dogs as dangerous breeds and either refuse to insure or increase the price of policies, despite evidence showing that breed doesn’t predict behavior.

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    Pet medical/veterinary insurance

    The owner of an emotional support animal will rely on the animal for emotional support and will almost certainly form a bond with it. Accordingly, they should take out health insurance for the animal to cover vets' bills if the animal becomes sick or injured because these bills can cost a fortune if paid out of pocket, especially for ESAs that aren’t traditional pets.

    Third-party, public liability insurance

    Any insurance policy should include third-party, public liability to cover circumstances where, for instance, the animal causes an accident. Obviously, this will depend on the type of animal involved and is much more likely to apply to a dog or a cat than a guinea pig, mouse, or gerbil.

    Third-party insurance covering loss and damage against damage to the landlord's property

    Any animal, including a mouse or a gerbil, for instance, can cause damage to a landlord's property, and the animal owner may be required to make good on the loss to the landlord. Accordingly, any insurance policy should include third-party insurance covering damage to the landlord's property.

    Who pays for insurance for emotional support animals?

    Can a landlord require a disabled renter to insure their emotional support animal for third-party loss or damage? 

    Landlords can't ask for extra rent or a deposit for an emotional support animal, although they can require someone to pay for any damage caused by the animal. As mentioned above, arguably, requiring insurance isn't rent or deposit, so perhaps it is an open point that needs clarification by HUD. A renter should have insurance, including third-party liability insurance, for their animal as a precaution.

    What happens to a landlord's liability insurance?

    Some landlords have blanket insurance for pets on their premises. Emotional support animals aren't pets, however, so landlords may have to pay an additional or "top up" premium to cover them, especially if they are large, of a more aggressive breed, or in the “unique animal” category. HUD has issued guidance about the accepted parameters for Emotional Support Animals.

    A landlord may therefore have to pay an increased premium against the presence of an emotional support animal on their premises. Arguably, this could amount to an administrative or financial burden.

    How can PetScreening help?

    PetScreening can help landlords spot fraudulent emotional support animal claims and verify assistance animals by reference to relevant guidelines.

    We can provide landlords with data showing the prevalence of damage caused to landlords’ property by restricted breeds, potentially widening the types of animals that landlords will accept as emotional support animals.

    We have created the pet industry's leading and first pet policy management software solution. It helps landlords understand the risks around pet ownership in rental and commercial properties so those risks can be quantified and priced into the market rent. The idea is that this will help pet owners rent property more easily. PetScreening does not offer or broker insurance itself, however.

    FAQs about Your Fair Housing Act Emotional Support Animal

    Am I entitled to an emotional support animal?

    If you have a mental health disability that substantially limits one or more major life activities, and your disability is aided by the presence of an emotional support animal, then you may have a right to an emotional support animal.

    What do I need to prove my entitlement to my landlord?

    You need a letter from a medical doctor or therapist that fulfills certain formalities and states that you have a mental health disability substantially limiting one or more major life activities, and that's aided by the presence of an emotional support animal.

    What does the landlord have to do to accommodate me?

    The landlord must make reasonable accommodations for your emotional support animal and isn't entitled to charge deposits or premium rents that'd apply to tenants with pets.

    What can I do if my landlord refuses to comply?

    If your landlord refuses to comply after you’ve shown a legitimate ESA letter, you can make a complaint to HUD through its online portal and receive assistance from them.


    Now you, your ESA, and your landlord can safely face the nuances of the Fair Housing Act

    If you are a renter with an ESA letter or a landlord with an ESA rental situation, PetScreening is here to help.

    PetScreening is working hard to help landlords better understand the needs of people with emotional support animals, making life easier for renters and landlords alike in the long run.

    If you are a landlord and want to know more about the rights and concerns around emotional support animals, then contact PetScreening today.


    This article is for information only and is not intended as legal advice. In the case of specific circumstances, always consult an appropriately qualified lawyer or HUD.