A San Diego Landlord’s Guide to Service Animals

A San Diego Landlord’s Guide to Service Animals - Article Banner

California’s rental laws aren’t always easy to navigate, especially if you’re struggling to keep up with the latest requirements. In addition to state laws, there are federal fair housing laws that need your attention, including those pertaining to service animals. 

What is a service animal, exactly? 

Service animals are protected accommodations that people with disabilities are entitled to when they rent your home. A lot of San Diego landlords struggle with how to define a service animal and what it means for their rental property, especially if they’ve always had a strict policy against allowing pets. 

What you need to know is that service animals are not pets. You cannot treat them that way. Instead, they’re accommodations, and legally protected. 

It’s easy to make a mistake when it comes to service animals, and we want to spend some time talking about how to keep yourself in compliance when you’re renting out a home to a tenant with a disability.

ADA Service Animal Definition 

To avoid any confusion, we’re sharing the definition of a service animal according to the Americans with Disabilities Act 2020 updates:

“Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”

Two important things in that definition should stand out for anyone who owns a San Diego rental property:

  • Service animals are dogs. At one time, miniature horses could serve as service animals. Not anymore. Any tenant who claims that an animal other than a dog is a service animal has been misinformed. 
  • You can’t use the same criteria with service animals as you do with pets. You cannot charge a pet fee or collect a pet deposit. You cannot charge pet rent or limit the breed or size of a service animal.

How Service Animals and Companion Animals Differ

Service Animal

Service animals are certified and trained. Sometimes, they wear something identifying that they are a service animal.

Companion animals may be emotional support animals or therapy dogs. The law treats them just a little differently. You cannot disallow them, but you can ask for documentation if the disability is not immediately apparent. 

Companion and emotional support animals are different from service animals in that they can be any type of animal and they aren’t trained to do a specific task or serve a specific purpose. They offer comfort and support. 

In these cases, you can ask your tenant for documentation from a medical professional explaining the disability and why the animal is required. Don’t be confrontational about it. Asking for documentation is permitted, but being difficult or expressing doubt can get you into legal trouble. 

Now that you have an understanding of how to handle service animals in your rental property, make sure you aren’t setting yourself up for any mistakes. Screen tenants in accordance with all fair housing laws, and make sure you aren’t treating a service animal like a pet. 

If you’d like some help figuring out how to manage this, please contact us at Mercer Properties. We will happily serve as your San Diego property management resource.