Assistance Animals

Know the Difference: Household Pets, Service Animals and ESAs

    Residents bring three types of animals to apartment communities, and each has a different connotation for onsite teams.

    The most common, naturally, are household pets. These are the easiest for onsite teams to screen, as the community typically has an easy-to-understand policy regarding the parameters for pets—even if it varies from community to community.

    The distinction between the other two types of pets, service animals and support animals, is a bit fuzzier. Service animals must be trained to perform tasks that benefit an individual with a disability. These are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the ADA specifically limits a service animal to a dog or a miniature horse.

    That's opposed to support animals, which offer emotional support, comfort, protection and companionship. This is when you’ll see residents with emotional support dogs, cats, small birds, rabbits, hamsters, gerbils, other rodents, fish, turtles, or other small, domesticated animals that are traditionally kept in the home for pleasure rather than for commercial purposes. Unlike with a service animal, the owner must prove a disability and related need.

    A recent article in Student Housing Business further delineates between service animals and the various types of support animals.

    Knowing the differences is a solid first step for multifamily associates. Understanding the implications for community teams is quite another. Here are a few key distinguishing factors amongst pets, service animals and support animals with regard to how teams must handle each request:

    • A resident cannot be charged a standard pet fee for service or support animals.
    • Service and support animals are permitted to live at rental properties with “no pet” policies and are not subject to a community’s pet restrictions, such as breed and weight.
    • Quantity restrictions do not apply to service and support animals, although there must be a demonstrated nexus for each animal and the disability-related need for each animal.
    • Service animals must be trained for a specific task. Onsite teams are only permitted to ask two questions: Is the service animal required because of a disability? What work or task has the animal been trained to perform? Of note, these questions are not allowed if the disability is obvious, such as a seeing-eye dog for a blind individual.
    • To expand on the thought above that residents must prove a disability or need with regard to a support animal: This type of verification typically comes in the form of a licensed medical professional. Assistance animal verification is often the toughest to navigate for onsite teams, as fraud can be high in this area. While many assistance animal requests are perfectly legitimate, some residents will attempt to use false documentation to avoid pet rent or sneak in a restricted animal.
    • Only household pets fall into the category of “not a protected class.” That means property managers can deny them for any reason.

    Pet policies can be tricky enough for onsite associates with regard to the number of pets allowed in a particular home and the need to adhere to any community-specific restrictions. The addition of service and support animals to the mix presents an additional component of complexity. Knowing the differences between the three—and how community teams must handle the nuances of each—will help erase any gray area when residents arrive with these types of animals.