Right to Have Companion Animals

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A companion animal is an animal that provides emotional support to a person with a disability.  

Recently, Congress amended the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Most disability advocates welcomed the new amendments as they expanded the previous definition of disability, but for some, the amendments have caused confusion.

One issue that Disability Law Colorado has seen frequently in the last year is confusion regarding emotional support animals in housing. For those with any questions on the subject, here is a breakdown of the current state of the law regarding your right to an emotional support (often referred to as “companion”) animal in your home.

Companion Animals and Housing

First, although the ADA and the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) implementing regulations have limited a “service animal” to a specially trained dog (or in some instances a miniature horse), those limitations do not apply to the Fair Housing Act (FHA) or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 – the federal laws that apply to housing.

While the DOJ’s rules expressly preclude emotional support animals from qualifying as service animals, the FHA and Section 504 do not exclude emotional support animals from their protections.

What does this mean?

It means that people with disabilities may request a reasonable accommodation to allow an emotional support animal to live with them even if their housing has restrictions or prohibitions on pets.

The issue then becomes whether the person with a disability needs the animal in order to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the housing or housing program. To make this argument, the person with a disability must make a request for a reasonable accommodation to the landlord, property manager or homeowners association (HOA) and provide the following information:

  1. Indicate that you have a disability
  2. Request that, as a reasonable accommodation of your disability, you are seeking to have an emotional support animal live with you
  3. Describe the relationship between your disability and the assistance the animal provides

If you can show each of these three things, a housing provider or program must permit the animal to live with you unless it can demonstrate that allowing the animal would pose an undue financial or administrative burden or would fundamentally alter the nature of the housing or program.

Additional Notes

  1. Although the request for accommodation does not need to be in writing, it is always a good idea.
  2. Second, you are not required to provide any particular proof of disability. However, you may consider sending supporting documentation from a medical provider, counselor, or case manager to help expedite your request. You should not send or agree to provide access to all of your medical records.
  3. There is no specific restriction on the type or number of animals that can provide emotional support, but it’s best to be reasonable. Two cats will likely be fine, whereas two dogs, three cats, a parakeet and a salamander together may not qualify as a “reasonable” accommodation.
  4. Your request can be denied if the animal poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others that cannot be reduced or eliminated by a reasonable accommodation or if the animal would cause substantial physical damage to the property of others that cannot be reduced or eliminated by a reasonable accommodation.

Essence of the FHA

The FHA is intended to be broad in scope. Therefore, generally speaking, a person with a disability who needs an emotional support animal should be able to have one. If you find that your landlord, property manager or HOA is refusing to grant you this accommodation, please contact us.

We can try to help you and your animal stay together in your home – just like we did for Steve Thomas and his dog Henry. We were able to convince Mr. Thomas’ HOA that his dog was a reasonable accommodation—despite their strict “no pets” stance—and we are pleased to report that Mr. Thomas and his dog are now happy and healthy and living together in southern Colorado.