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a young man holds a cat.

Animals other than dogs may serve as emotional support or companion animals.

This post is part of our series on animals that assist individuals with disabilities.  Housing providers may be obligated to modify their “no pets” policies to allow a resident to keep an animal that does not meet the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) definition of “service animal” because of the broader definition of “assistance animal” used in such laws.  This post will clarify the status of other types of animals that may assist individuals with disabilities, such as emotional support/companion animals, and their place in Fair Housing laws.

The ADA defines service animals as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” The one exception to the “dog” rule is, in some cases, miniature horses (we will go into great depth on this exception in a future post).  This provision allows a person with a disability to be accompanied by his or her service dog or miniature horse to any place that members of the public are allowed to go such as restaurants, theatres, retail shops, grocery stores, etc. Service animals must be individually trained, housebroken, and under the handler’s control at all times when out in public.

Assistance Animals in Housing

Although emotional support/companion animals do not meet the definition of “Service Animal” under the ADA, this does not affect or limit the broader definition of “assistance animal” under the Fair Housing Act in the housing context. Under the federal Fair Housing Act and the state fairing housing law, persons with disabilities may request a reasonable accommodation to keep any assistance animal, including a service animal or an emotional support animal, in his or her dwelling as an exception to a “no pets” policy.  “Assistance animal” is a broad term that encompasses both service animals and emotional support animals.

Assistance animals:

  • are not pets.
  • work, provide assistance, or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or
  • provide emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability
  • are not required to be individually trained or certified.
  • are commonly dogs but can also be other animals.

Emotional support animals (ESA), sometimes referred to as “comfort animals,” or “companion animals,” are animals whose presence alone helps an individual with a disability. Unlike service animals, ESAs are not trained to perform a task or service. An example would be a dog that is not individually trained to provide a service, but whose companionship helps alleviate its owner’s symptoms of depression.

Housing providers:

  • May require medical documentation that the animal is needed because of a disability if the disability related need is not obvious or known.
  • May not charge extra fees to the resident for keeping the animal.
  • May charge the tenant for damages caused by the animal in the same way that it would to any other tenant.

Assistance Animals may not be restricted by any housing provider by breed, size, or weight.  Generally, municipal ordinances that prohibit specific breeds of dogs may not be applied to assistance animals. Similarly, while an individual housing provider may restrict the breed, size, type, or number of pets a resident may keep in his or her dwelling, exceptions must be considered when the animal(s) is needed due to a disability.

It is important to note that assistance animals may be denied or asked to be removed in cases where the animal’s presence would:

  • impose an undue financial or administrative burden, or
  • would fundamentally alter the nature of the housing provider’s services, or
  • the specific assistance animal in question poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others that cannot be reduced or eliminated by another reasonable accommodation, or
  • the specific assistance animal in question would cause substantial physical damage to the property of others that cannot be reduced or eliminated by another reasonable accommodation.

Such a determination must be based on an individualized assessment that relies on objective evidence about animal’s actual conduct, not on mere speculation.

Permission and Proof

Unlike in public settings, in the housing context, individuals with assistance animals must first obtain permission to have the animal in a residence or other places that are not open to the public and do not allow animals.  S/he must request a reasonable accommodation to a ‘no pets policy.’ An individual may be required to provide documentation that the animal is needed due to a disability if the disability-related need is not obvious or known to the housing provider.  No specific certification or registration is required; a note from a doctor or other provider that documents the connection between the individual’s disability and the need for the animal may suffice. Individuals should be wary of entities that claim to provide service or emotional support animal “certification” or “registration” for a fee.

Exotic Species & Wildlife

There may be cases where an individual benefits from an assistance animal that is not a typical domestic species.  For example, in Massachusetts, Helping Hands Helper Monkeys in Brookline helps adults with spinal cord injuries and other mobility impairments by providing them, free of charge, with a highly trained Capuchin monkey to help with their daily tasks.

Helping Hands is the only organization of its kind that MOD is aware of and shares a unique and long-standing relationship with state wildlife law enforcement. While animals other than dogs and miniature horses may meet the definition of “assistance animal” under Fair Housing, species that are not legal to possess in Massachusetts may be denied or removed by law enforcement.   Therefore, individuals may be denied permission to possess, or reside with, primates that have not come through Helping Hands, or other wildlife species that may not be kept by members of the general public, even if the animal is needed because of a disability. Such a determination should be based on an individualized assessment.

MOD’s Role

MOD acts as a resource for the disability community, state and local governments, businesses, and housing providers on the issues of service animals and assistance animals.  We seek to educate and inform the public and to support outcomes that lead to enhanced access for persons with disabilities. If you have been denied access because of your service animal, or have been denied a reasonable accommodation to keep an assistance animal, you may contact us by form or call 800-322-2020.

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