HUD's New Guidance on Assistance Animals: What You Need to Know
HUD recently issued new guidelines relating to assistance animals under the Fair Housing Act (FHA). Notice FHEO-2020-01, referred to as the “Assistance Animals Notice,” replaces prior HUD guidelines from 2013 and can be found at www.hud.gov/sites/dfiles/PA/documents/HUDAsstAnimalNC1-28-2020.pdf.
The notice has two parts. The first, “Assessing a Person’s Request to Have an Animal as a Reasonable Accommodation Under the Fair Housing Act,” is a guide for assessing requests for accommodation of assistance animals.
The second part, “Guidance on Documenting an Individual’s Need for Assistance Animals in Housing,” provides information that applicants and residents seeking a reasonable accommodation for an assistance animal may need to give a housing provider about their disability-related need for the animal, including supporting information from a health care professional. HUD provides an attachment that residents can give to medical providers to show what information should be in a letter in support of an assistance animal.
There Are Two Types of Assistance Animals
HUD’s notice clarifies the language regarding assistance animals. “Assistance animals” is a broad term that includes two subsets of animals—service animals and support animals.
Service animal. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service animal means any dog that’s individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for the purposes of this definition. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual's disability.
The notice provides a series of questions to answer in determining whether an animal is a service animal under the ADA. Because HUD interprets the FHA to require access for individuals who use service animals, owners should follow this analysis for assessing whether an animal is a qualifying service animal.
According to the notice, the first question in assessing a request for accommodation is determining whether the animal is a service animal under the ADA. It’s important to note that “work or tasks” the dog is trained to do don’t include emotional support. If the animal is determined to be a service animal, no documentation is required from the animal owner.
Support animal. If the animal isn’t a service animal, then you should determine if it’s a “support animal,” defined as “other trained or untrained animals that do work, perform tasks, provide assistance, and/or provide therapeutic emotional support for individuals with disabilities.”
The analysis for support animals, found in part II of the first attachment to the notice, includes an analysis of whether a disability is obvious or observable.
Document the Disability-Related Need for the Animal
If the disability of the person requesting the assistance animal isn’t obvious, you may require the person to provide you with documentation that he or she has a disability that affects a major life activity and has a disability-related need for the assistance animal. HUD says the lack of such documentation in many cases may be reasonable grounds for denying the requested accommodation.
According to the notice, reasonably supporting documentation often consists of information from a licensed health care professional such as a physician, optometrist, psychiatrist, psychologist, physician’s assistant, nurse practitioner, or nurse. For non-observable disabilities and support animals, you may ask for information that reasonably confirms that the person seeking the accommodation has a disability and that the animal does work, performs tasks, provides assistance, and/or provides therapeutic emotional support with respect to the individual’s disability.
Examples of work, tasks, or other types of assistance provided by assistance animals include:
- Helping persons with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors;
- Reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medication;
- Alerting a person with diabetes when blood sugar is high or low;
- Taking an action to calm a person with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack;
- Helping a person dealing with disability-related stress or pain;
- Helping a person with mental illness leave the isolation of home or interact with others;
- Enabling a person to deal with the symptoms or effects of major depression by providing a reason to live; or
- Providing emotional support that alleviates at least one identified symptom or effect of a physical or mental impairment.
Practical Pointer: As a best practice, you should make a determination on the request for an assistance animal promptly, generally within 10 days of receiving documentation.
Request Information Directly from Professional
What should you do if an applicant or resident gives you documentation of his or her need for an assistance animal, but’s it’s insufficient? You can cite the second part of the notice when you make a request for more detailed information.
It’s important to note that you may not require a health care professional to use a specific form, to provide notarized statements, to make statements under penalty of perjury, or to provide an individual’s diagnosis or other detailed information about a person’s physical or mental impairments.
Here’s a summary of the type of information that you may request:
- The patient’s name,
- Whether the health care provider has a professional relationship with that patient/client involving the provision of health care or disability-related services; and
- The type of animal(s) for which the reasonable accommodation is sought.
- Whether the patient has a physical or mental impairment (note that addiction caused by current, illegal use of a controlled substance doesn’t qualify as a disability);
- Whether the patient’s impairment(s) substantially limit at least one major life activity or major bodily function; and
- Whether the patient needs the animal(s) because it does work, provides assistance, or performs at least one task that benefits the patient because of his or her disability, or because it provides therapeutic emotional support to alleviate a symptom or effect of the disability of the patient/client, and not merely as a pet.
Additionally, if the animal isn’t one that’s traditionally kept in the home for pleasure, but rather a “unique animal,” it may be helpful for patients to ask health care professionals to provide the following additional information:
- The date of the last consultation with the patient;
- Any unique circumstances justifying the patient’s need for the particular animal (if already owned or identified by the individual) or particular type of animal(s); and
- Whether the health care professional has reliable information about this specific animal or whether he or she specifically recommended this type of animal.
- HUD recommends that you ask the health care professional to sign and date any documentation and provide contact information and professional licensing information.
Don’t Automatically Accept or Reject Internet Letters as Documentation
What should you do if an applicant or resident who’s requesting a support animal gives you documentation that’s from an online source?
HUD’s notice provides information regarding documentation from the Internet. According to the notice, some websites sell certificates and emotional support animal letters to anyone who answers certain questions or participates in a short interview and pays a fee.
The notice states, “In HUD’s experience, such documentation from the internet is not, by itself, sufficient to reliably establish that an individual has a non-observable disability or disability-related need for an assistance animal.” In other words, unreliable documentation from the Internet such as online certificates, registrations, or licensing documents, by themselves, are insufficient to support a reasonable accommodation request.
The notice goes on to state, “By contrast, many legitimate, licensed health care professionals deliver services remotely, including over the internet. One reliable form of documentation is a note from a person’s health care professional that confirms a person’s disability and/or need for an animal when the provider has personal knowledge of the individual.”
Here, the important factor in the analysis is whether the provider has “personal knowledge” of the individual. This is a new term introduced by HUD, and it should be the focus of inquiries into the validity of emotional support animal letters from Internet providers.
A Support Animal Can’t Be Just Any Animal
HUD’s notice makes a significant distinction in types of support animals. If the animal is commonly kept in households—such as a “dog, cat, small bird, rabbit, hamster, gerbil, other rodent, fish, turtle, or other small, domesticated animal,” then the request should be granted, assuming disability-related need has been established. “Reptiles (other than turtles), barnyard animals, monkeys, kangaroos, and other non-domesticated animals are not considered common household animals.”
Other types of animals are labelled as “unique,” and the requester has a “substantial burden” to demonstrate the disability-related need for these animals. For this category of animals, the notice says that you may take reasonable steps to enforce a no-pets policy if the requester obtains the animal before submitting reliable documentation from a health care provider that reasonably supports his or her disability-related need for the animal.
Example of unique support animal. The notice provides an example of a unique animal that might be appropriate. An animal may be individually trained to do work or perform tasks that can’t be performed by a dog, or could be performed by a dog, but a health care professional confirms that allergies prevent the person from using a dog. Under these circumstances, an individually trained capuchin monkey performing tasks for a person with paralysis caused by a spinal cord injury would be allowed. The monkey has been trained to retrieve a bottle of water from the refrigerator, unscrew the cap, insert a straw, and place the bottle in a holder so the individual can get a drink of water. The monkey is also trained to switch lights on and off and retrieve requested items from inside cabinets. Here, the individual has a disability-related need for this specific type of animal because the monkey can use its hands to perform manual tasks that a service dog can’t perform.