Q: We received a request from a couple to see our single-family rental. This couple has a companion dog for the wife who has anxiety. The dog is a pit bull. The husband said the dog was insured in case it hurt anyone. We do not have any fencing around our property and small children play in front of our rental. Within our block there are about 12 children. We are afraid of liability that might arise as a result of allowing this pit bull in our rental. Since this is a companion dog and not a service dog I would think the breed of dog and the history that this breed has in terms of danger to others would be a major consideration in whether we have to rent to this tenant. Can you give any thought to this question? -TVS Landlord
Under the companion animal rules, a landlord cannot apply any policies that generally apply to pets. A landlord cannot reject the applicant simply because he or she is disabled or has a companion animal.
Unfortunately, the pit bull breed does have a reputation for aggression. The Center for Disease Control once reported that pit bull breeds, along with rottweillers, accounted for more than half of fatal attacks on humans. In that report, 58% of attacks were from unrestrained dogs at the owner’s residence. Most of the victims were children.
The situation is complicated by the conflict between companion animal laws and negligence laws. A Kentucky court recently found that landlords could be deemed “statutory” pet owners if they allow tenants to keep an animal with vicious propensities. The injuries sustained from pit bull attacks can be heinous, and often involve innocent victims, including children. Jury awards in these cases can be astronomical.
Still, there are some flaws in the statistics. For instance, a policy of rejecting all pit bulls does not address the other 50% of attacks caused by less notorious breeds.
The nation’s fair housing regulator – HUD – maintains that rejecting a rental applicant for keeping a companion animal is discriminatory. In published guidelines, HUD has indicated that a landlord cannot inquire about the level of service training a companion animal may have, and cannot reject a tenant based solely on the breed of a companion animal. Landlords who violate the law face penalties that can run into the tens of thousands of dollars.
HUD does, however, provide some exceptions. For instance, if the state or other local government regulates animals, like banning certain breeds, a landlord is not required to break the law in order to accommodate the tenant’s companion animal request. Leash laws may require the owner to remain with the dog any time it is outside where there is no fenced yard.
Where the landlord’s insurance carrier will not insure a “dangerous” breed, threatens to increase the landlord’s insurance rate, or places similar special conditions on the property insurance coverage, HUD has indicated that it may make an exception. (The insurance that the applicant is referring to may be a renter’s policy, so it is unclear whether that would indemnify you as landlord or cover business losses.)
If accommodating a companion animal creates undue financial hardship or administrative burden, the landlord may be exempt.
Finally, if the individual animal (not the breed) poses a direct threat to others or causes physical damage to the property or neighboring properties, the landlord may not be required to make the accommodation.
Landlords have to be very careful with respect to the questions they ask regarding the applicant’s disability and the need for a companion animal. However, the landlord does have the right to verify that the person suffers from a disability, and to determine if a health practitioner has prescribed the companion animal to assist in treating the disability.
Because a landlord does not have to accept an animal that poses a threat to others, it is logical to assume that the landlord has the right to determine if the individual animal has violent propensities. That’s usually accomplished by speaking with previous landlords, and by asking the tenant to verify that the animal does not have a history of aggressive behavior.
The companion animal rules are enforced on an individual, case-by-case basis. In this situation, consider what factors may apply. For instance, is the history of the animal unknown? Does the owner appear unable to control or care for the animal, especially in a situation where there is no fenced-in area? Are neighbors fearful?
If these or other factors are present, one possible course of action is to speak preemptively to your local HUD office and explain your concerns. This may reduce the risk of a discrimination claim, and the liability for any potential injuries.
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Disclaimer: The information provided in this post in not intended to be construed as legal advice, nor should it be considered a substitute for obtaining individual legal counsel or consulting your local, state, federal or provincial tenancy laws.