While the terms “service dog” and “emotional support animal” are often used interchangeably, these types of animals have very distinct roles and qualifications.
Service dogs are trained to perform quantifiable tasks that directly ease the challenges associated with their owner’s physical, psychiatric, sensory, and/or developmental disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects the rights of people with disabilities to bring their service dogs to rental housing. At a minimum, service dogs should be individually trained in essential tasks that a person could not otherwise perform due to his/her disability (although there are no consistent, recognized standards as of yet).
Emotional support animals are companion animals who help their owners cope with the challenges associated with emotional and mental health conditions (such as depression and anxiety) by providing comfort with their presence. Unlike service dogs, emotional support animals are not expected to perform specific tasks related to their owner’s condition, nor must they adhere to any behavior standards or training. Their presence alone is what is thought to provide their owner with solace and therapeutic benefit. The Federal Fair Housing Act requires that most housing units accommodate emotional support animals with appropriate documentation (it is OK to ask for the documentation).
In Colorado, if someone is caught claiming their animal is a service animal or emotional support animal without the proper documentation, they may be assessed with a fine of up to $500.00. Colorado law only requires a valid letter from a medical expert for an emotional support animal.
Because there is no training required for a pet to become an emotional support animal, animals of all kinds can qualify. The only requirement for becoming an emotional support animal is that their companionship improves your mood.
HOWEVER, if forcing the landlord to accept the animal creates an unreasonable accommodation for the landlord, the landlord may be able to deny the emotional support animal. For example, a horse in a 1 BR apartment would most certainly be unreasonable. A pet rat, on the other hand, would probably not be unreasonable.
If you are uncertain as a landlord, contact an attorney well-versed in ADA and Fair Housing laws.
President and founder of the Colorado Landlords Association, best-selling real estate author and attorney, landlord and real estate investor with 28 years' experience.