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Emotional Support Animals in Virginia: Everything Landlords Need to Know

emotional-support-animal

Accommodating all tenants is an essential part of running a successful rental business. After all, landlords involved in discrimination claims can face significant legal or financial penalties. That said, navigating pet laws in your rental can be tricky. For example, what’s the difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal? How can rental property management in Northern Virginia help? Read along as we go over how to navigate the laws regarding emotional support animals in Virginia.

What is an Emotional Support Animal?

Emotional Support Animals are animals that comfort people by providing them therapeutic companionship. Frequently, people with mental health conditions like depression or anxiety benefit from the therapeutic properties of an emotional support animal.

To officially have an animal recognized as an emotional support animal in Virginia, you need to have an ESA letter signed by a licensed mental health professional. Owning a pet and claiming it’s an ESA is not the same as having a certified ESA. Additionally, service animals are not the same as emotional support animals in Virginia. Here are the key differences. 

service-animals

Service Animal vs. ESA

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Virginia disability laws, individuals with disabilities can bring service animals to all public accommodations. These places may include schools, restaurants, hotels, businesses, stores, etc. However, it’s important to recognize that service animals differ from emotional support animals in several ways. 

For instance, the ADA and Virginia’s service animal laws both disclude ESAs as service animals. This is mainly because ESAs don’t receive any training to alleviate symptoms of emotional distress or specific disabilities. Additionally, Virginia law states that providing companionship and emotional support does not qualify as a disability-specific task. 

On the other hand, a service animal is typically a dog that receives extensive training to help its owner in case of a medical emergency. Service dogs, hearing dogs, and guide dogs are the three groups you’ll see in Virginia. Here are some of the differences between each. 

Service Dogs

Service dogs are different from the rest because they train specifically according to their owners’ disabilities. For instance, if an owner has epilepsy, a service animal may go through training to alert its owner of an oncoming seizure. A service dog’s function relates directly to an owner’s needs per their disability. 

Hearing Dogs

This type of service animal is trained to help hard of hearing owners. Hearing dogs can recognize and alert owners of danger or noises like a smoke alarm or doorbell. 

Guide Dogs

Like hearing animals, guide dogs assist owners who are visually impaired. Whether someone is partially blind or completely blind, a guide dog can help them navigate through their daily environment. 

Who Qualifies For an Emotional Support Animal in Virginia?

Owners need to meet the requirements to qualify for an emotional support aminal. In Virginia, you’ll likely need to meet with a licensed mental health provider first to discuss your request for an ESA. As you speak with your therapist, they will evaluate your needs for an ESA to see if it’s a good fit for you. Once the therapist has determined your eligibility, you’ll have to get an official letter written and signed to legitimize your ESA. 

Emotional support animals are different from service animals because they can be almost any pet, as long as they provide emotional support. You can essentially choose any pet you bond with best and make them your emotional support animal. The only qualification for an ESA is a signed approval letter from a licensed medical professional. 

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Tenant Rights Regarding ESAs

The Fair Housing Act (FHA) states that landlords may not discriminate against tenants with disabilities. As such, landlords cannot refuse a tenant because they have a service animal or ESA. In addition, according to the FHA, ESA owners can live with their ESA in any US state without paying pet fees. 

However, your ESA cannot be overly loud or a significant inconvenience. Additionally, the animal must be well behaved and must not financially burden the landlord. If your ESA causes any damage to a rental property, landlords are legally allowed to charge for damage costs. 

It’s essential to recognize that the only way to get an ESA legally is to get an ESA letter signed by a medical professional. If you claim that your animal is an ESA without the proper documentation, you can face severe legal and financial trouble. Additionally, it’s illegal to claim you need an ESA if you do not. Here are some of the consequences of fake ESA letters.

Consequences of Fake ESA Certifications

Faking an ESA letter can result in serious legal or financial setbacks. In most states, it’s a crime to misrepresent your pet as a service animal or claim you have a disability if you do not. Pretending to have a disability and taking advantage of the rights that come with owning ESAs can result in penalties ranging from hefty fines, jail time, or community service hours. 

What Can Landlords Do?

What are your rights if you’re a landlord and come across a fake ESA letter? Landlords must comply with all Fair Housing Laws and maintain respect and privacy for each tenant. For instance, landlords cannot ask tenants if they have a disability or any questions related to their medical history. Additionally, it’s illegal for landlords to contact their tenant’s therapists to get validation of an ESA. 

If you have any concerns, it’s important to bring them up with tenants politely. Remember that they’re disclosing potentially vulnerable information, so don’t be rude or accuse them of lying. Instead, talk them through the letter and ensure comfortability for each everyone involved.

Additionally, you can verify the validity of the therapist’s license number. You have to visit the website for their clinical discipline and type in their license number. If nothing pops up, it could mean the letter is fake. Another way you can detect a fake letter is by asking your tenant to have their therapist complete a Reasonable Accommodation Form

Can Landlords Deny an ESA?

As stated above, tenants with emotional support animals are entitled to live in any state without paying a pet fee unless the ESA creates a significant financial burden for the landlord. That said, if the animal is extremely disruptive or the tenant doesn’t take extra measures to respect other tenants, landlords may deny the accommodation or file for eviction if necessary.  

rental-management

Landlords may not deny an ESA based on the animal’s breed, weight, or size as there are no restrictions for an emotional support animal. Additionally, landlords cannot require tenants to pay an extra fee for having an ESA. On the other hand, tenants may be responsible for repairs if the animal causes significant damage to the home. 

Navigating Emotional Support Animals in Virginia

Navigating landlord-tenant laws, especially those surrounding emotional support animals in Virginia, can be difficult for landlords. Screening tenants, sorting through documentation, and legitimizing ESA letters can take time to complete. Many landlords benefit from property management services, which take care of the daily tasks, so landlords don’t have to.

With full-service property management, landlords don’t have to worry about paperwork, property advertising, rental compliance, and more. Bay Property Management Group serves several areas, including Baltimore, Philadelphia, Northern Virginia, and Washington DC. Contact us today to see how you could benefit from top-notch, full-service property management.