Q&A on Assistance Animals

The September issue of Fair Housing Coach reviews federal laws about when—and under what circumstances—communities must allow people to bring animals onto the property.

This subject has generated a lot of confusion—and formal fair housing complaints, according to HUD. Adding to the confusion are new federal regulations related to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), another federal law protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities in various settings.

Perhaps you heard that the new ADA rules state that only dogs that have received special training to provide specific tasks are considered “service animals.” You may be wondering whether those rules change what you’ve been told about fair housing requirements—that assistance animals include a wide variety of animals that provide various forms of assistance, including emotional support, with or without special training—to individuals with disabilities.

To clear up the confusion, the September issue answers 12 common questions about federal fair housing requirements with respect to assistance animals for individuals with disabilities. Here are some highlights from the September issue:

Q: Does fair housing law prohibit communities from having a pet policy?
No. Federal fair housing laws do not prohibit communities from adopting and enforcing policies on pet ownership as long as the rules are applied consistently to all residents, without regard to race, color, or other protected characteristic.

Q: What is the difference between a pet and an assistance animal?
Under federal fair housing law, the key difference between a pet and an assistance animal is whether the animal is necessary to afford an individual with a disability an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the community.

Q: Can we limit exception to service dogs or require certification of specialized training?
No, the new ADA regulations on service animals do not affect reasonable accommodation requests under federal fair housing laws, which recognize that assistance animals may include a wide variety of species that provide various forms of assistance, with or without specialized training.

Q: Do we have to make exceptions for any animal if the individual has an obvious disability?
No, an individual with a qualifying disability is not automatically entitled to an exception to your pet policies as a reasonable accommodation if there is no disability-related need for the animal.

Q: Do we have to grant a request for an assistance animal if the resident doesn’t appear to be disabled?
Yes, but if the resident’s disability isn’t obvious, then you may seek disability-related information as long as you comply with federal guidelines about the nature and extent of such inquiries.

Q: Can we exclude certain dog breeds or exotic animals even if they qualify as assistance animals?
No, except in certain circumstances. Although many communities have adopted policies to ban particular breeds of dogs or species of animals, they may be required to make an exception to the rules as a reasonable accommodation for an individual with a disability.

Q: Can we exclude certain dog breeds because of insurance policy restrictions?
Yes, depending on the circumstances. Communities may refuse to grant a request for an accommodation if it is unreasonable—that is, it imposes an undue financial and administrative burden on the community’s operations.

Q: Can we exclude dangerous animals?
Yes, if an assistance animal’s behavior poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others and its owner takes no effective action to control the animal’s behavior so that the threat is diminished or eliminated.

Q: Can we charge extra fees to cover potential damages caused by assistance animals?
No, a community may not require an applicant with a disability to pay a fee or a security deposit as a condition of allowing him to keep an assistance animal.

Q: Can we ask residents to follow health and safety rules for assistance animals?
Yes, communities generally may enforce state and local health and safety laws related to animals, including assistance animals.

Q: Can we take action if an assistance animal triggers complaints from neighbors?
Yes, depending on the circumstances. For example, you have the obligation to address problems, such as excessive noise, caused by a resident’s assistance animal.

Q: Do we have to provide special care for assistance animals?
No. Although you must allow residents with disabilities to keep assistance animals if they need them, fair housing law does not require you to provide care for the animals, unless you provide such services to all residents with pets.

Source: Fair Housing Coach, September 2011