A recent U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) case caught my eye earlier this week, and made me realize that there was still some confusion over the distinction between “service animals” and “emotional support animals.”  To simplify matters, I generally advise my multifamily management and owner clients that, for purposes of the Fair Housing Act, there is no need to get bogged down in the nomenclature unnecessarily—just lump them all under the category of “assistance animals,” and follow your standard fair housing protocol.

It was a case out of Oklahoma that got me thinking about this issue.  HUD filed a Charge of Discrimination against the landlords of a rental property, alleging that they violated the Fair Housing Act by refusing to waive a $250 pet fee for an emotional support animal.  Based on the facts in the Charge, a veteran with PTSD apparently made a reasonable accommodation request for the landlords to waive the pet fee for his emotional support animal.  Although no details about the doctor’s letter were given, it appears that it was likely sufficient for the request.  However, the landlords seemed to be operating under the belief that pet fees only needed to be waived for service animals, and not emotional support animals.  Even though the complainant provided the landlords with multiple sources to the contrary, the landlords continued to refuse to waive the pet fee for the emotional support animal.

HUD has made it pretty clear that it believes that pet fees must be waived for both service animals and emotional support animals under the Fair Housing Act.  In fact, for purposes of the Fair Housing Act, HUD lumps emotional support animals, therapy/companion animals, and service animals under the umbrella term of “assistance animals.”  And HUD has explicitly stated that assistance animals under the Fair Housing Act are not required to have any individual training or certification (contrast this with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires that a service animal be a trained dog–or, oddly enough, a miniature horse).

So, the bottom-line for housing providers is that you should not be too focused on labels when you are considering an accommodation request for an assistance animal.  Simply stick to your standard procedures, and require verification where the disability and/or the disability-related need is not apparent — in fact, this is likely the one instance where the distinction between a service animal and an emotional support animal is relevant, since the disability and disability-related need for a service animal is likely to be more apparent (see my prior blog post “The Do’s and Don’ts of verifying RA Requests”).

And for Pete’s sake, unless you really have an ax to grind with HUD, do not charge a pet fee for any approved assistance animal!