Landlords have the right to prohibit all pets, or to restrict the type (such as cats only), number, or size of pets or dog breeds allowed. Federal law (the Fair Housing Amendments Act), however, provides for one exception: Landlords cannot refuse to rent to someone with an animal that is a service or companion animal, such as a properly trained dog for a disabled person, and some other animals used by people who have a mental or physical disability.
Landlords who allow pets may require tenants to pay a separate deposit to cover any damages caused by the pet. In some states this is legal; in others, not. And a fairly recent trend is for landlords to charge pet rent.
All states allow landlords to collect a security deposit when tenants move in and hold it until the tenants leave. The general purpose of the deposit is to assure that a tenant pays rent when due and keeps the rental unit in good condition. The laws of most state specify how large a deposit a landlord can require, how the landlord can use the deposit, when and how the deposit must be returned, and more.
In many states, such as California, landlords many not charge more than a specified amount (such as one or two months’ rent) as a deposit. In these states, if a landlord collects more than one type of deposit, such as a security deposit and a separate pet deposit, the total of the deposits cannot exceed the state limit—regardless of what the landlord calls the various deposits (pet fee, cleaning fee, or whatever).
The laws of a few states, including Delaware, and North Dakota, specifically allow landlords to charge an additional pet deposit (typically, there is a limit as to the amount of the pet deposit) to cover any damage caused by the pet. Depending on the state, these deposits may truly be deposits (in that they are refundable); in others they are not (and may be called a pet fee).
In all states, it is illegal under federal law (the Fair Housing Act and Fair Housing Amendments Act) to charge an extra pet deposit for people with trained or service animals.
Even where allowed, separate pet deposits can be a bad idea for landlords because they limit how the security deposit may be used. For example, if a tenant’s dog is well-behaved, but the tenant trashes the apartment, the landlord can’t use the pet portion of the deposit to clean up after the tenant. A landlord who wants to protect rental property from damage done by a dog, cat, or other pet is often better off charging a higher rent (if not prohibited by rent control or regulation). In fact, the practice in some areas is to clearly label an additional amount of money as pet rent.
Another option is to charge a higher security deposit to start with. Charging a higher deposit will not be a problem for landlords in states, such as Florida, Georgia, and Ohio, that set no statutory limit on the amount of the deposit, while it would be a problem in states that set a low limit (such as one month’s rent) and don’t allow a separate pet deposit.
For details on your state rules, see the Nolo chart Security Deposits Limits and Deadlines in Your State. If you want to dig deeper, read the statute itself. You’ll find the citation on this chart. See the Laws and Legal Research section of the Nolo website for advice on finding and reading read state laws.
Your local humane society may also be a useful resource on renting with pets and deposits.