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 | Updated by Ann O’Connell, Attorney

When necessary to ensure that a person with a disability can use and enjoy a rental, California landlords and other housing providers must take steps to accommodate the person's needs. When a person with a disability has an animal that provides disability-related assistance, this means that a landlord or homeowners' association might have to make an exception to a "no-animals" policy.

What Is a "Reasonable Accommodation" Under California Law?

Housing providers such as landlords must make "reasonable accommodations"

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) (2022).) The most frequent accommodation landlords must make for assistance animals is to allow the animal despite having a "no-pets" or "no-animals" policy.

What Types of Animals Does This Rule Apply To?

In California, the rule requiring landlords to allow assistance animals in housing applies to "assistance animals." Under California law, assistance animals are:

  • Service animals. Animals that are trained to perform specific tasks to assist individuals with disabilities, including mental health disabilities. 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.
  • Support animals. Animals—not just dogs—that provide emotional, cognitive, or other similar support to an individual with a disability. These animals don't have to be trained or certified, and are also known as "comfort animals" and "emotional support animals."

(Cal. Code Regs., tit. 2, § 12005(d) (2022); Cal. Civ. Code §§ 54.1 and 54.2 (2022); 28 C.F.R. § 35.136 (2022).)

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

A landlord or other housing provider may deny a request to keep a service or support animal in California as a reasonable accommodation if granting the request would:

  • create an undue financial and administrative burden
  • create an 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.

(Cal. Code Regs., tit. 2, § 12176(c) (2022).)

However, if the threat or damage can be reduced or eliminated by another reasonable accommodation, the landlord must allow the animal.

A landlord cannot reject a service dog or assistance animal because of breed, size, or weight. In other words, a determination that a service dog or 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.

Can a California Landlord 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) (2022).)

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. The tenant or boarder must then provide the landlord with reasonable medical documentation from a third party that confirms the existence of the disability and the need for reasonable accommodation. The third party doesn't have to be a health care provider; rather, it can be any reliable source, such as a social worker, who has personal knowledge of the individual's need for a service or support animal. (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 2, § 12178 (2022).)

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 (2022).)

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

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