• Sasha Struthers

California Housing Laws on Emotional Support and Service Animals.

Landlords in California are familiar with the distinction between service animals and pets. However, few are familiar with the distinction between emotional support animals and service animals, both of which a landlord may not discriminate against a current or potential resident for having. Landlords that otherwise prohibit pets, must accommodate tenants with mental or physical disabilities to have an animal, not necessarily limited to dogs, cohabit with them if the animal is providing disability related assistance.

Service Animal Definition

Federal law, through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) use the following definition- "a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person's disability." You can also read the Federal government's FAQ section related to service animals.

Here a service animal is limited to dogs.

California law, through the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) defines service animals as- "animals that are trained to perform specific tasks to assist individuals with disabilities, including individuals with mental health disabilities. Service animals do not need to be professionally trained or certified, but may be trained by the individual with a disability or another individual."

In California service animals:

  • Are not limited to dogs, though dogs are usually the service animal;

  • Does not need to have any specific certification or be trained by anyone specific; and

  • Includes mental health in its definition, not just physical disability.

Emotional Support Animal Definition

California law through the DFEH, defines emotional support animals as "animals that provide emotional, cognitive, or other similar support to an individual with a disability. A support animal does not need to be trained or certified. Support animals are also known as comfort animals or emotional support animals."

There is no specific or common animal used in this instance. Further, these animals do not receive any training, not even from the owner, in order to be deemed an emotional support animal.


When it is not obvious that the individual has a mental or physical disability, the landlord may request documentation validating the service or support animal, usually request a letter from a healthcare professional or case manager. Landlords may not request medical records.

When landlords do not have to accommodate.

Under Federal law through the Fair Housing Act (FHA) Landlords may deny an emotional support animal when (a) the landlord is renting out a unit in a complex with 4 or less units and one of the units is owner occupied or (b) if the landlord is renting a single family residence, without the use of a broker. It is unclear if California uses the same exemption.

In California, landlords may deny a service animal, emotional support animal or psychiatric support animal if the animal (a) poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others, or (b) would cause substantial physical damage to the property of others. The second part must be looked at very carefully. A landlord must make or allow accommodations to be made that would reduce the potential for physical damage as a result of the animal.

Pet Deposits

Landlords cannot charge a pet deposit for a service animal or emotional support animal. However, a tenant is responsible for any damage to the rental property or unit that is caused by the service animal or emotional support animal.

If you are a landlord with questions about this topic or other landlord-tenant law you may contact me by phone at (818) 306-0686 or by email at sasha@struthers.legal

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The information in this post is for general information purposes only. Nothing on this post should be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.

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