Understanding the Rules for Companion Animals

by Chris on March 19, 2012

Did you know that companion animal rules also apply to persons who are associated with the tenant?

A Nevada landlord is facing discrimination charges after telling his tenants that a frequent visitor could not bring his emotional support dog onto the rental property.

Recently, there have been a number of news stories regarding landlords who have been accused of discrimination because of their pet policies.

These cases highlight confusion over the companion animal rules. Part of that confusion stems from the fact that these situations are resolved on a case-by-case basis, making it more difficult for landlords to adopt a uniform policy.

Here are some commonly asked questions and answers concerning companion animals:

Do small landlord businesses have to follow the companion animal rules?

Companion animal laws come from both the federal Fair Housing Act and its prohibition against discrimination on the basis of disability, and from state and local laws that do the same thing. According to HUD, the FHA applies to most landlords, except those properties which are owner-occupied with four or fewer units.

The state rules are usually more strict. For instance, a state may only exempt owner-occupied properties. It’s important to find out if there are any state or local laws regarding companion animals.

When a local housing authority is investigating a charge of discrimination, they often rely on regulations interpreting the FHA, so it’s important for all landlords to know those rules, too.

HUD is the agency of the government that oversees the FHA. The Department of Justice is also involved in prosecuting FHA cases.  Companion animals are considered a “reasonable accommodation” for a person with a disability.

When a tenant or rental prospect complains about discrimination, the landlord may not know about it right away. It is common for the housing agency or for HUD to send in fake applicants called testers to try to catch the landlord in the act of discrimination. These testers will adapt a profile — like a disabled person with a companion cat, and record the communications between the landlord and tenant.

It is critical for a landlord to know how to deal with companion animal requests, and to treat all requests in the same way.

What is a companion animal? Is it the same as a service animal?

A companion animal is an animal that is prescribed for a tenant with a disability to treat the disability, including helping the person cope with the disability. While technically that’s not the same thing as a service animal, under the Fair Housing rules, the distinction does not matter — both have to be allowed into the rental property if prescribed for a tenant with a disability to assist with that disability.

While this distinction isn’t important to HUD, it is very important to a landlord. While service animals may undergo rigorous training which includes the socialization skills the animal needs to live in a rental environment, a companion animal may not receive any training at all.

There appear to be no restrictions on how the tenant chooses the individual animal, or what type of animal the tenant can choose.

However, it is illegal for a landlord to question the tenant regarding the training level of the companion animal.

Can anyone “prescribe” a companion animal for the tenant?

The fair housing rules provide great leeway regarding who can prescribe a companion pet. The person does not have to be a doctor. They simply need to be “qualified to treat the disability”, and the animal must be useful in the treatment of the disability, typically by providing emotional support. There are no specific licensing  requirements or skills that the person must possess.

What do you do when another tenant is allergic or has asthma?

HUD suggests looking at these situations on a case-by-case basis. A landlord is not allowed to deny a request for a companion animals based on fears that this situation may occur in the future. If faced with an actual situation, the landlord who denies the request for the animal still may be investigated for discrimination. The landlord can raise defenses at this point, including documentation proving that the other tenant would be harmed, would have to move out,  or that the landlord would suffer some specific financial hardship if they grant the request for the animal.

Can I charge a pet deposit or pet rent to cover the damage the pet may cause?

No. The companion animal is not considered a pet, therefore the landlord cannot charge any addition funds — a deposit, higher rent, pet rent, or change the conditions of the lease for the tenant with a disability who requests a companion animal.

Can I apply my pet rules to the companion animal?

The landlord must modify any existing pet policies, whether a “no-pets” policy or restrictions on the type, size or other factors regarding the pet. The companion animal is legally not a pet.

However, local or state rules which govern animals in residences likely still apply. This means that if your city has a ban on pit bulls, the companion animal cannot be a pit bull. (One local HUD division representative indicated that they have received complaints from tenants who wish to have pit bulls as companion animals.)

If the city or state regulates the number of animals, or the animal’s droppings violate the law, HUD’s position so far has been that the landlord does not have the right to waive those local laws — only their own policies.

Can I deny the request for a companion animal?

The landlord can deny the request if the person making the request is not legally disabled, if the animal is not prescribed for treatment of that specific disability, or if keeping the animal creates an undue burden, like harming others, forcing the landlord to break the law, or causing a significant financial burden the landlord.

Landlords must be very careful not to apply their own standard on determining whether a companion animal is justified. An Oregon landlord was sued for denying a request for a companion dog consistent with a no-pets policy. The tenant suffered from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, arthritis and fibromyalgia. The landlord told the tenant that a dog would only be justified if she were blind; however, he would allow her to have a fish or a bird.

Can I require documentation before I decide whether to allow the animal?

If the disability is obvious, and therefore the need for the animal is obvious, a landlord is warned not to ask for specific documentation or otherwise burden the tenant.

However, if the disability is not obvious or not known, the landlord can ask for simple verification of the disability and the need for the animal as treatment if that link is not obvious. For instance, if a tenant who is in a wheelchair asks for a companion animal, the link between the disability and the animal may not be obvious. In that situation, the landlord could ask for some verification.

A letter from the person treating the disability stating the animal is necessary is considered sufficient documentation.

What do I do if the animal causes damage?

HUD’s position is that any other remedies that are available under the lease agreement  generally will be enforceable. That means that the landlord should be able to deduct damage from the general security deposit, or pursue a tenant for the damage in court, regardless of that person’s disability.

The tenant is generally expected to clean up after the animal and provide for its day-to-day care, subject to any local laws regarding the care and maintenance of an animal.


This post is provided by Tenant Verification Service, Inc., helping landlords reduce the risks of renting with fraud prevention tools that include Tenant Screening, Tenant Background Checks, (U.S. and Canada), as well as Criminal Background Checks, and Eviction Reports (U.S. only).

Click Here to Receive Landlord Credit Reports.

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.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Kira October 26, 2014 at 7:06 pm

Hello, I live in Massachusetts and I am searching for an apartment that will allow me to keep my pitbull. I have a doctors note which says she is vital to recovery and helps with my disability. Every landlord I have talked to said she is not allowed but are they legally allowed to deny me if I have a doctors note? Is there a way to go about this where I don’t have to take legal action?

Jonas October 30, 2014 at 9:26 am

I’m just curious if hotels in Oregon or anywhere else can deny a feline companion animals if they have a no cats allowed policy and I have medical documentation for my girlfriend’s disabled status and
companion animal paperwork.

sebastian November 2, 2014 at 12:02 pm

My family has multiple individuals that have 1 companion animal each how do the laws apply?

Sue November 13, 2014 at 2:29 pm

Jonas, hotels in Oregon are required to comply with the ADA and the Oregon statutes related to task trained service animals (which only include dogs, and in some cases, miniature horses). Hotels are not required to accommodate cats, even if the cat is described as a companion animal for a person with a disability.

Fair housing acts however do allow a tenant to request reasonable accommodation if they have a cat as a companion animal.

Donald November 23, 2014 at 8:54 pm

I suffer with PTSD and depression, having my dog with helps me a lot.
I trained her for the commands required, I do not have the money to pay for training. The training is about $2,000 and up and not to many have that much money to pay for the training. My dog is a god sent for me. The ADA laws clearly stat about giving information to others under the HEPA law and allowing a person with a disability to not give out that information to just any one. Research your rights under the laws. There are a lot of people out there miss informed I was one of them myself. So I did the research and now know my rights all of them. Find out the information your self first hand is always best. My dog and I go every where together and we always will.
Combat with with a companion dog.
Vets have fought for everyone’s rights, now it’s time
You fight for ours.

Sunny December 14, 2014 at 5:07 pm

In most cases “companion animal” is just a way to skirt the laws of “no pet”, or smaller pets. Just like healthy people take handicapped parking spaces there are many of you out there abusing the system. What shysters you are!

asherdu December 28, 2014 at 1:04 am

Okay, Sunny. There’s three comments above yours of people with disabilities like PTSD and such who are talking about their need for companion animals. I’m soooo sorry you’re ignorant enough to breeze just past them, but companion animals are needed, and not at all about skirting no pet laws. Many of those “healthy” people taking handicapped parking spaces have invisible handicaps, please do a little more research.

maricela January 1, 2015 at 6:32 pm

hello i have one question what if you have more than one companion that you would like to get a dr note from lets say two cuz i have to girls that i would like to get a letter for do you know if theres any restrictions as of how many companions can be on one card??

Anne July 26, 2016 at 7:39 pm

Hello I am a tenant in oregon and my current bf has a Emotional support animal and has paper work….but my manager at my complex which is owed my a housing authority is denying his access as long story he has his Esa dog. Is this legal

Grace August 25, 2016 at 7:54 pm

I suffer with depression and pretty serious anxiety and nightmares from PTSD (from childhood abuse). It is AMAZING how much my dog and cat help relieve the intensity of anxiety and depression, and having them near me at night helps lessen the intensity of the nightmares. My dog wakes me up when I do have nightmares.

Kat December 17, 2016 at 5:58 pm

How many companion animals can a person have in a two bedroom apt and what if they have 3 dogs can they be told to leave the apt even if they have letters from doctors for them

Asthmatic Landlord May 13, 2017 at 4:31 am

I have decided to sell my rental property because of my severe allergies to cats and most dogs given most companion pets follow under one of these two. It was you going to fund my retirement. I consider this to be financially harmful. If I were to keep it then there would be harm to my health. Is there any upcoming legislation to bridge this gap in the system? Or any protection for others in my situation?

Bud May 20, 2017 at 11:50 am

Do I have to rent a person with multiple pets if they say they are companion pets with a doctor’s note? Seems to me that one pet might be legitimate be not multiple…

Michelle July 10, 2017 at 1:30 pm

Hi, when is it appropriate to inform the rental of your companion pet. Is it before you sign rental contract or after? I prefer not stating what my disabilities are , but I do have the paperwork for my companion pet.

Laura Chapman September 22, 2017 at 8:36 am

I live in Antlers Oklahoma in a disabled community complex. I suffer from many disabilities. Many of us here have service/ companion animals. In this community they write us up on our animals not being on leashes, we all here have walking problems and can’t actually walk our fur babies. There is no fenced in area here for them to excirsice, and we can’t just go to a park to let them run. There are no parks in Antlers for dogs to excirsice in. What are the rights of our companion / service animals ? We are forced to abuse our animals! There are days I have to literally roll out of bed and crawl to the bathroom and be bedridden for up to a week due to my hips locking, a fibro thing, plus I had recently been diagnosed with Ra in hips and back and shoulders. I have had my companion for 7 years and never in my life had I had to deal with this kind of situation. If we get written up 3 times due to letting our animals excirsice we will be evicted.. Please help! We are all desperate here in Antlers,Oklahoma.

Chris September 25, 2017 at 1:05 pm

Hi Laura,
Sorry to hear you are having some trouble with your lease. Unfortunately, we cannot provide specific legal advice regarding your tenancy. I can say that, generally, the tenant is responsible for the basic care of a companion animal, which likely includes bathroom walks and exercise. The tenant must follow whatever local laws exist regarding leashes and picking up after the animal. I honestly do not know if providing a fenced-in area for dogs would be considered a necessary and reasonable accommodation. That’s a good question for a tenant attorney in your area. If not, perhaps you can team up with other tenants to find a volunteer or hire someone to come by and walk the companions. Thank you for your interest in our blog.

Tracy December 14, 2017 at 8:12 pm

As a renter looking for housing am I required to tell the lanloard I have a prescribed companion dog prior to giggling the lease? I am having issues with the no dog apts

Francesca May 11, 2018 at 5:04 am

I’m a land lord,,, I have a tenant wo signed a contract no pets .She fiend a cat in the street she want to kip in the ,apartament I HAVE the some contract for all 4 unit.she insisted and I was nice we agree to kip the cat only until other tenant complent .and now is happening .others want pets too.PLEASE I want to be fair to all the tenants Itoll her she need to place the cat to other home .. Now she tell me is a companieng animal I’m in Colorado please what are mine rights ,, she is an a month to month lease.

Please help!!! Thank you

Lyn January 14, 2019 at 12:00 pm

I live in Oregon, I reside above someone with a “companion “ dog. The poor dog is left alone most days, all day. On occasion overnight.
I’m just curious how they can say it’s a companion?!

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