If you don’t know the difference between a pet and a service animal, you could get yourself in a lot of trouble by mistakenly violating fair housing laws. The most common violation by landlords is to charge a pet deposit for what the law determines to be a service animal. By law, a service animal is not a pet, so a tenant cannot be charged a pet deposit for the animal. So how do you know if you are dealing with a pet or a service animal? Let’s tackle a few of the most common myths to help point you in the right direction.
Myth 1: Only dogs can be service animals.
Although this is commonly what comes to mind when we think of service animals, a service animal can range from a miniature horse (no, I’m not kidding!) to dogs, and everything in between. For someone to qualify an animal as a service animal, they must prove verification and connection. The need of the animal must be verified by a healthcare provider. The connection means that the animal must be able to help with the disability that it is being claimed to assist with. In other words, it is very unlikely that you will legitimately come across a “seeing eye snake.” The animal must be able to legitimately assist with the disability. But be careful, you cannot ask a prospective tenant what their disability is.
Myth 2: Only doctors can verify service animals.
Service animal must be verified by a healthcare provider. By law, a healthcare provider can be a doctor, nurse, psychologist, physician’s assistant, nurse practitioner, and many, many others. So if a prospective tenant comes in with a letter from someone other than a doctor, don’t be too quick to dismiss it.
Myth 3: Service animals are only for physical disabilities.
A service animal can also be a “comfort animal” that is used to comfort a person with a mental disability. This is where things can get really fuzzy. Although you may call a tenant’s bluff regarding the “seeing eye snake,” it’s more difficult to do so if they claim the snake is a “comfort animal.”
Myth 4: Only certified service animals qualify as service animals.
Although this is a common misconception and there are many companies out there are trying to capitalize on this misunderstanding, there is no state or federally recognized certification for service animals.
Myth 5: Landlords can avoid service animals with a “no pets” policy.
As mentioned above, by law, service animals are not pets. Not allowing a service animal is a direct violation of fair housing laws.
There are many other concerns that may arise surrounding service animals, but these clarifications will help get you pointed in the right direction. If you ever have a specific question about service animals, I suggest you contact the Southwest Fair Housing Council. They can be reached at 520-798-1568 or on the web at www.sfhc.com. If you ever have any doubt about a specific situation, it’s better to be safe and ask the question, than to be sorry later that you didn’t.