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The Landlord’s Guide to Service Animals and Emotional Support/Assistance Animals

On Behalf of | Feb 5, 2020 | Landlord's Guide |

If you’re a landlord, there’s a good chance that you’re going to encounter the issue of service animals or emotional support animals (ESAs), also known as assistance animals, at some point in your career. Service animals and ESAs/assistance animals are important to many people throughout the United States. You probably already know that as a landlord, you have laws to follow concerning service animals and ESA/assistance animals.

Colorado Housing Laws Regarding Service Animals and ESAs/Assistance Animals

Colorado’s housing laws regarding service animals come from both United States federal law and Colorado state law. The purpose of allowing service animals is to ensure that people with disabilities have equal access to housing.  In general, a tenant has the right to have a service animal or ESA/assistance animal, even if the rules of the housing unit don’t allow pets. You can’t charge a deposit or an extra fee for a qualified service animal. You can reject an individual animal if it poses a real, direct threat to the health and safety of others or is not housebroken.

What is the Difference Between Service Animals and ESAs/Assistance Animals?

To understand service animals generally in a landlord-tenant situation, you must first understand what a service animal is. In fact, there are two kinds of animals that help people with disabilities: service animals and ESAs/assistance animals.  Under federal law, service animals are generally specially trained dogs, although miniature horses also are eligible.  ESAs/assistance animals are not limited to dogs and miniature horses.  The difference between service animals and emotional support animals is that service animals are dogs (or miniature horses) that have been individually trained to perform specific tasks or do work for the benefit of someone with a disability, while ESAs/emotional support animals assist a person without performing any particular task and without a training requirement.

For example, a service dog may be trained to remind someone to take their medication.  They may know how to recognize the signs of a seizure or diabetic shock.  An ESA doesn’t perform any specific task. Instead, merely by its presence, the animal provides support.

A Landlord Must Accept Both Service Animals and ESAs/Assistance Animals

Colorado law requires that landlords provide accommodation for both service animals and ESAs/assistance animals.  Even though the two types of animals help in different ways, they’re both legally considered animals that assist with disabilities.  As a landlord, you must accept both types when the tenant meets two legal requirements:

  1. The tenant has a real, recognized disability.
  2. The animal is related to, and assists with the disability.

As a Landlord, Can You Verify a Tenant’s Disability?

Under Colorado law concerning emotional support animals, if the disability isn’t immediately obvious, a landlord may ask for a letter (an “ESA letter”) from a licensed medical professional, on their letterhead, that confirms that the tenant has a disability and that the ESA can help such tenant.  To qualify a tenant to have an ESA, the doctor must meet with the patient in person or by formal telemedicine. The doctor must be familiar enough with the person and their disability to make a determination. The doctor must also be qualified professionally to make a determination regarding the appropriateness of the ESA.

Under federal laws concerning service animals and assistance animals, if the tenant’s disability is obvious or already known to the landlord, the landlord may not inquire further.  If the disability is not obvious and not already known to the landlord, only limited inquiries are allowed.  In such case, a landlord may only inquire: (1) is the animal a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task has the animal been trained to perform.  Under federal law, a landlord cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation, or ask that the animal demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.

Can You Charge a Pet Deposit or Pet Rent for a Service Animal?

No, you cannot charge a pet deposit or pet rent for a service animal or ESA/assistance animal.  Because a service animal is a reasonable accommodation, the tenant must be able to rent their property without paying any additional fees for the animal. Remember, a service animal or ESA/assistance animal isn’t legally regarded as a pet. They’re there to help the tenant have equal access to housing.  Because of their role in providing equality, you cannot charge a pet deposit or pet rent for a service animal.

Who Pays for the Damage If a Service Animal Damages the Property?

In Colorado, the tenant pays for damage if a service animal damages the property. Colorado law 24-34-803 makes tenants liable for damage to rental properties caused by their service animal. The owner is liable even if the animal doesn’t have a propensity to cause harm or if the tenant didn’t have a reason to believe that the pet would cause harm.

Are There Any Grounds to Lawfully Reject a Service Animal?

Yes, there are some grounds by which a landlord may lawfully reject a service animal.  For example, if the service animal poses an unreasonable risk of physical harm to others or has a high likelihood of property damage, the landlord may reject the animal. The key thing to remember is that the risk must be reasonable and apparent. You may not deny an animal based on certain breeds alone.

In addition, you may still place other, lawful requirements on renting a property that would apply to any tenant, with or without a service animal.  However, remember not to use another reason as an excuse for rejecting a service animal; your actions may be subject to scrutiny, and you may be opening yourself to legal action.

Landlords and Service Animals

As a landlord, remember that tenants have rights and obligations when it comes to service animals and ESAs/assistance animals. However, you have rights and obligations, too.  An experienced attorney can help you understand your rights and defend yourself if you have questions with landlord service animal requirements.