Pet Policy Q&A

There are no dogs allowed in my building. The other day a tenant came in with a dog. When I confronted him about it, he said the dog was a comfort pet for a visiting friend. (The friend was not in evidence at the time.) What are the rules regarding visitors’ comfort pets? If the tenant’s friend comes to the building and even stays overnight, must the pet be allowed?

Service animals to the disabled are not considered “pets” and thus must be allowed entry into your building, regardless of your no pet policy. Moreover, your tenant is entitled to the full use and enjoyment of his apartment, and that includes having guests visit. If those visitors are disabled and have service animals, then those animals must be allowed to visit the building as well, including overnight visits.

A seeing-eye dog accompanying a tenant’s sight impaired visitor is something everyone can understand and accept, but it is more difficult to grasp the notion of a service animal when a disability isn’t evident, or if the animal is a “comfort” animal for emotional disabilities, rather than for physical disabilities. California courts have ruled that comfort or therapy animals are “service animals” and thus must be allowed as a reasonable accommodation to a tenant.

However your question is interesting as it is not your tenant with the comfort animal, but rather his visitor. The Fair Housing Act requires states that tenants with disabilities are provided with “reasonable accommodations” as needed, in order for them to have an opportunity for full use and enjoyment of their housing, including allowing a service/comfort animals. But what is your obligation to “reasonably accommodate” your tenant’s guests with comfort animals?

Since in the eyes of disability rights law, a companion/comfort animal and a seeing eye dog are viewed the same, the visitor with his comfort animal must be allowed in your building to visit the tenant. That said, how do you ensure that the visitor’s comfort dog is truly a comfort animal aiding someone emotionally disabled and not just a pet?

This question does not have a simple answer. In researching this question, no fewer than four inquiries were made to different Fair Housing agencies (both governmental and non-profit), and none of them provided a straight, unequivocal answer and usually referred me to another agency. That alone should indicate what a tricky minefield disability issues and your “visiting comfort animal” question raises. Fair housing discrimination decisions are based on the specific facts of a particular situation, and often there is no clear guidance.

So what can a landlord do? Fair Housing law allows a housing provider to ask a tenant for medical verification of a need for reasonable accommodation such as a service animal. The verification is limited to confirmation that the person is disabled within the meaning of the law and that there is a need for the requested accommodation. Note, however, that the landlord provider is not entitled to any information about the nature of the disability.

The problem in your situation is that a landlord doesn’t have a relationship with the tenant’s visitor. Most agencies contacted advised “just let it go” and to take the tenant’s word that the visiting animal is the guest’s comfort animal. These agencies felt it was an issue that a landlord should not invade the privacy of a person with a non-evident disability in asking for verification when they wouldn’t necessarily ask a person who was obviously disabled for verification. Another agency however, stated that the landlord had an obligation to his other tenants to make sure the pet was, in fact, a legitimate service/comfort animal (in case other tenants had issues like pets allergies), and that a respectful inquiry to the tenant to get a letter from his visiting friend would be appropriate.

As such, if the landlord has reason to believe that the animal is not truly a service/comfort animal (for example, the animals is never in the presence or control of the person who claims it as their service animal), or if other tenants are questioning the presence of the pet in the building, it seems reasonable that a landlord could attempt to open a friendly dialogue with the tenant, and see if the tenant’s visitor with the comfort animal wouldn’t mind providing a verification letter. That said, should the visitor refuse to provide any verification, it is not recommended that the landlord take any action against the tenant or refuse the visitor access to the building when they arrive with the pet. At that point, it would be wise to contact an attorney and discuss your options. Marina Franco


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