Emotional Support Animals Under the Fair Housing Act

Emotional support animals are protected under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), which states that landlords must reasonably accommodate tenants who have emotional support animals, even in buildings that aren’t otherwise pet-friendly. However, there are nuances to this law that you should be aware of before you proceed with your next rental application. 

Below, we’ll dig into the requirements an animal must meet to be considered an emotional support animal, how to apply for a rental with an ESA, and tips for how and when to notify your landlord of your ESA. We’ll also cover your housing rights with regard to your emotional support animal and some instances in which a landlord may turn your ESa away. 

What is an emotional support animal?

According to the US Department of Housing and Human Development (HUD), an emotional support animal (ESA) is one that “works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or that provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified effects of a person’s disability.” HUD also asserts that “An assistance animal is not a pet.”

Under the Fair Housing Act, landlords are required to make “reasonable accommodations” for tenants or prospective tenants who need the assistance of an emotional support animal. As such, landlords are obligated to waive rules that would otherwise apply in order to accommodate a tenant’s emotional support animal. 

We’ll discuss this in detail below, but one important thing to remember is that an animal can only qualify as an ESA under the Fair Housing Act if you have a disability or mental illness. 

What are a landlord’s obligations for tenants with emotional support animals?

The FHA states that housing providers must make “reasonable accommodations” for assistance animals when the following conditions have been met:

  • A request for accommodation was made by or on behalf of a person with a disability
  • The request was backed up with reliable information regarding the disability or disability-related need for the ESA

In other words, you must notify your landlord of the support animal and provide sufficient proof that it is indeed a support animal and not just a pet.

At the same time, the law also stipulates that housing providers can refuse to accommodate emotional support animals in instances where:

  • Approving the request would impose an undue financial or administrative burden on the landlord
  • Accommodating the ESA would “fundamentally alter the essential nature of the housing provider’s operations”
  • The specific ESA in question would “pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others despite any other reasonable accommodations that could eliminate or reduce the physical damage”

“Reasonable accommodation” is a vague term, but common examples might include:

  • Allowing an ESA to live in a building that does not otherwise permit animals
  • Waiving a pet deposit fee

As mentioned above, landlords can refuse to accommodate emotional support animals in certain instances. We’ll discuss those in detail below, but one of the main reasons ESAs could be turned away is due to a lack of legitimate documentation. So, let’s take a look at what you should have in place before you apply for a rental. 

How can you prove your animal is an ESA?

While landlords are required to make reasonable accommodation for emotional support animals, before they bend any of the rental’s policies, they will need documentation proving that your animal is an ESA and not just a pet. 

If you don’t already have this documentation, you can get it from a licensed healthcare provider in the form of a letter addressed to your housing provider. 

The letter should state that you require an emotional support animal to assist with your disability. This letter essentially serves as a “prescription” of sorts for your support animal. The letter should be written on your healthcare practitioner’s official letterhead and should list their license number, signature, and date. 

As of a January 2020 HUD guidance, your landlord may request that the letter include a description of your disability or your disability-related need for a support animal. 

Beyond the letter from your healthcare professional, you are not required to disclose any further information regarding the specifics of your disability, only that your ESA offers support for it. If you wish to share more information, that is entirely up to you. 

There are websites where you can “register” your emotional support animal or purchase a certification. These do not provide a legitimate qualification for your ESA, and they may even be scammy organizations that are simply trying to make a quick buck. If you are looking to qualify your emotional support animal, the only way to do it legitimately is through a licensed healthcare provider.

Applying for a rental with an emotional support animal

If you’re applying for a rental with an emotional support animal, you may be wondering if you should disclose your ESA to the prospective landlord before or after you sign the lease.

You are not required to mention your emotional support animal on your rental application. In fact, you don’t even have to disclose your emotional support animal before signing the lease. Ultimately, the choice of when to bring up your ESA is yours. 

But, even though you don’t have to, it may make sense to inform the landlord about your ESA before signing a lease. If you choose to wait until after signing the lease, your landlord might feel duped or blindsided, even though he is still legally obligated to accommodate your emotional support animal. 

It isn’t ideal to risk souring your relationship with the landlord right at the beginning of your tenancy, as this could lead to issues down the road. 

Advising your landlord about your emotional support animal before signing the lease is courteous and gives the landlord time to take care of any administrative details related to the ESA. That way, they can file any necessary paperwork all at once.

However, it is also completely understandable if you choose to wait until after the lease is signed to mention your ESA. This way, you can protect yourself from discrimination. 

Some landlords may be uninformed about the laws regarding emotional support animals, and informing them of your ESA too early in the rental process could send their head spinning, especially if their rental is not otherwise pet-friendly. 

Though they are legally obligated to accommodate you and your ESA, they could choose to overlook your rental application if they aren’t comfortable with the idea of an animal in the rental. 

Waiting until after the lease is signed to tell the landlord means he can’t wriggle out of renting to you. He’s already decided you’re a great tenant, so making this additional request shouldn’t present issues.

Only you will be able to judge when to bring up your ESA. Regardless of when you choose to inform your landlord of your ESA, you should provide this information in writing. This creates a paper trail for both of your records, which could come in handy in the future.

Write a simple letter to your landlord informing him that you have an emotional support animal. Attach the letter from your healthcare provider as proof that your ESA is legitimate.

ESA Letter to Your Landlord

Keep the letter brief and only include the essential information. 

Offer a brief description of your emotional support animal to manage the landlord’s expectations. Include the type of animal, the approximate size, and any behavioral traits you deem relevant. 

You can use the template below to craft a letter to your landlord.

Dear [Landlord’s Name],

In accordance with the Fair Housing Act, I am writing to request reasonable accommodation for my support animal, which will reside with me within my rental at [Rental Address].

I have a disability and, as such, require full-time assistance from this animal. I have attached a letter from my healthcare provider confirming my need for this form of assistance.

The animal in question is [include a brief description of your ESA].

If you wish to discuss this matter in more detail, you can reach me by phone at XXX-XXX-XXXX or email at [your email address].


[Your Name]

Your rights when it comes to renting with an ESA

If you have an emotional support animal, you must understand your rights under the Fair Housing Act to protect yourself from unfair treatment. Below, we’ve summarized some common situations that you may face and outlined what your rights are under the FHA. This list is not exhaustive, and you should review the FHA sections relating to support animals to ensure you have a thorough understanding of your rights. 

No-Pets policies do not apply to ESAs

Making an exception to a no-pets policy is a typical example of a “reasonable accommodation” that a landlord could make for an emotional support animal. There may be instances in which a landlord could reject an ESA, but simply citing that the rental doesn’t allow pets is insufficient. 

Additionally, support animals are exempt from fees associated with renting with pets. Meaning, your landlord cannot request a pet deposit fee for an ESA or ask you to pay monthly pet rent. However, if your support animal damages the rental in any way, you will be expected to pay for any repairs. 

Dog breed & size restrictions do not apply to ESAs

Exception from breed restrictions is another example of a reasonable accommodation a landlord could make for an emotional support animal. Some buildings have policies stating that dog breeds like German Shepherds, Huskies, Pit Bulls, and more are prohibited. If you have a support dog, it should be exempt from these restrictions. 

The same rule applies to weight restrictions. Rental buildings commonly have policies dictating that pets may not be larger than a certain weight. Your emotional support animal should be exempt from these policies.

Landlords have no right to ask for details regarding your disability

While your landlord can request that you provide documentation for your disability in the letter from your healthcare provider, they have no right to probe you for details about it. If you feel that your landlord is asking inappropriate personal questions relating to your disability, disengage from the conversation. All that is legally required is a letter from your healthcare provider documenting your need for an ESA. There is no need to share more beyond that.  

Can a landlord deny your emotional support animal?

Landlords can deny emotional support animals in certain situations. Below we’ve summarized two common instances in which your landlord could deem your request for accommodation unreasonable and, as such, deny your support animal.

Insufficient documentation

If you can’t provide a letter from a licensed healthcare provider proving that your emotional support animal is legitimate, your landlord is not obligated to accommodate it. Obtaining an official letter from a licensed healthcare practitioner is the only way to legally qualify your support animal. Certificates or registrations purchased online are not sufficient proof that your ESA is essential.

The animal is dangerous or destructive

A landlord could choose to deny an animal that causes excessive property damage or poses a threat to other tenants or their pets. With this in mind, you should ensure that your emotional support animal is well-behaved, especially when meeting the landlord for the first time.

If your animal has any aggressive tendencies, disclose them to your landlord along with your strategies for managing them. Your landlord must provide a safe environment for all tenants, so if your ESA is a threat to the safety and security of others your request may be denied.

The bottom line

If you require assistance from an emotional support animal, your landlord is legally obligated to accommodate the animal as long as you provide sufficient documentation. Before speaking to your landlord about your support animal, secure a letter from your healthcare professional documenting your need for the ESA. 

Be sure to study your rights pertaining to support animals under the FHA so you can protect yourself from discrimination. If you believe your landlord is treating you in a discriminatory way, you can file a complaint with HUD.

As long as you provide documentation and your animal doesn’t disrupt the safety and security of other tenants, there is likely no reason your landlord shouldn’t be able to accommodate your request.