When California Landlords Must Allow Tenants to Have Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals

California's definition of "assistance animals" includes both service animals and support animals.

By , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law

When necessary, California landlords and other housing providers must take reasonable steps to ensure that a person with a disability can use and enjoy a rental. This is known as the landlord's duty to provide "reasonable accommodation." One of the most common accommodations that landlords must make is to allow animals that provide disability-related assistance—even when the landlord or homeowners' association has a "no-animals" policy.

What Is a "Reasonable Accommodation"?

Both federal and California state laws define "reasonable accommodation." Landlords in California must follow both state and federal fair housing laws.

Federal Reasonable Accommodation Law

The federal Fair Housing Act requires that landlords accommodate the needs of tenants with disabilities, at the landlord's expense. This means that the landlord must adjust their rules, procedures, or services in order to give the person with a disability an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a rental unit or a common space. (42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(B).)

California Reasonable Accommodation Law

California's reasonable accommodation law is very similar to federal law. Under California law, a "reasonable accommodation" is an exception, change, or adjustment in rules, policies, practices, or services that's necessary for a person with a disability to have equal opportunity to use and enjoy a rental. (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 2, § 12176(a) (2023).)

Neither federal nor California law requires landlords to bend every rule and change every procedure. Rather, landlords must accommodate reasonable requests—they don't have to make changes that would seriously impair their ability to run their business or incur substantial costs.

Most of the time, waiving a "no-pets" or "no-animals" rule for the benefit of a person with disabilities will be considered a reasonable accommodation under both federal and California law.

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What Are California's Laws Regarding Service and Emotional Support Animals?

Many terms exist in popular culture to describe animals that might be kept by people with disabilities. For example, you might hear such an animal called an "assistance animal," a "service animal," a "psychiatric service animal," an "emotional support animal," a "comfort animal," or a "support animal."

California law simplifies all these terms under the umbrella term of "assistance animals," then breaks "assistance animals" into two categories: service animals and support animals. Under California law, landlords must make reasonable accommodations for a tenant who has any form of assistance animal to help with the individual's disability.

What Are "Service Animals" in California?

Service animals are animals that are specifically trained to perform a task or do work for the benefit of a person with a disability (regardless of whether the disability is physical or mental). California law doesn't limit the type of animal that can qualify as a service animal, but the most common are dogs and miniature horses.

Specific examples of service animals include:

  • Service dogs. A dog individually trained to help a certain individual with a disability. These dogs perform tasks such as rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, or fetching dropped items.
  • Guide dogs. These dogs have been trained by licensed trainers.
  • Signal dogs. These are dogs or other animals trained to alert a deaf or hard-of-hearing individual to sounds.
  • Miniature horses. Horses that have been trained to assist a specific individual in ways similar to service dogs.
  • Service animals in training. These animals include guide, signal, and service dogs that are in the process of learning how to assist individuals with disabilities.

(Cal. Code Regs., tit. 2, §§ 12005; 12185 (2023).)

What Are "Support Animals" in California?

Support animals—including comfort animals and emotional support animals—are animals that people keep for emotional, cognitive, or similar support. In California, people with disabilities who have a support animal can request a reasonable accommodation related to their need to have the animal in their rental.

(Cal. Code Regs., tit. 2, §§ 12005; 12185 (2023).)

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When Can a California Landlord Deny a Request to Keep a Service Animal or Support Animal?

Landlords can deny a request to keep a service or support animal in California if granting the request would:

  • create an undue financial and administrative burden
  • create a fundamental alteration of the landlord's business
  • constitute a direct threat to the health and safety of others, or
  • cause substantial physical damage to the property of others.

Also, landlords can deny a request if:

  • the individual who requested the accommodation isn't a person with a disability or
  • there's no disability-related need for the requested accommodation.

(Cal. Code Regs., tit. 2, §§ 12176; 12179 (2023).)

A landlord can't reject an assistance animal because of breed, size, or weight. In other words, a determination that an assistance animal poses a direct threat or would cause substantial physical damage must be based on an individualized assessment that relies on objective evidence about the specific animal's actual conduct. The determination must not be made on mere speculation or fear about the types of harm or damage an animal could cause or because of evidence about harm or damage that other similar animals have caused. (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 2, § 12185 (2023).)

Landlords Must Try in Good Faith to Make a Reasonable Accommodation

It's not enough for a landlord to simply deny the accommodation for one of these reasons, though. If the request poses too great a burden, the landlord must engage with the tenant to try to identify, evaluate, and implement another solution. This doesn't mean that the landlord and tenant must reach a compromise—instead, it means that they must interact and exchange information in good faith and make a reasonable attempt to work it out. What's considered reasonable depends on the facts of each individual case. (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 2, § 12177 (2023).)

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Can California Landlords Charge a Pet Deposit for a Service Animal or Support Animal?

California landlords may not require applicants or residents to pay any pet fee, additional rent, or other additional fee—including additional security deposit or liability insurance—in connection with the assistance animal. (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 2, § 12185(d)(2) (2023).)

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Can a Landlord Ask for Proof of Disability and Need?

When the disability or need for reasonable accommodation is not obvious, a landlord may ask the person with a disability for documentation that they have a disability and a disability-related need for the service dog or support animal. This means that the only questions that California landlords can ask the individual are:

  • Are you an individual with a disability?
  • What is the disability-related task the animal has been trained to perform?

Landlords can't ask the individual with the disability to have the animal perform the task. (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 2, § 12185 (2023).)

If the disability isn't readily apparent, the landlord can request only information that:

  • is necessary to establish that the individual has a disability
  • describes the needed accommodation, and
  • shows the relationship between the individual's disability and how the accommodation is necessary for the person to have equal opportunity to enjoy the housing opportunity.

The tenant must then provide the landlord with some form of credible information supporting the existence of the disability. It can be from the person themselves or a third party. The third party doesn't have to be a health care provider; rather, it can be any reliable source who has personal knowledge of the individual's need for a service or support animal. (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 2, § 12178 (2023).)

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What Disabilities Qualify a Tenant to Keep a Service Dog or Support Animal?

California law breaks out two main categories of disability:

  • Mental disability. A mental disability can be any mental or psychological disorder or condition that limits a major life activity. For example, emotional illnesses, cognitive disabilities, and specific learning disabilities are included in the category of mental disability.
  • Physical disability. A physical disability includes any disorder or condition that both affects a major body system (such as the musculoskeletal or respiratory systems) and limits a major life activity.

(Cal. Code Regs., tit. 2, § 11065 (2023).)

Landlords must make reasonable accommodations for individuals with any disability that falls under these categories.

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