- Determine whether you have a legal right to an emotional support animal where you live. If you have a psychiatric and/or pain-related disability, you most likely do. There are very few exceptions, such as if the building has fewer than five units AND the owner lives in one of those units. You can read about the exceptions in the Doris Day Animal League book or at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. Remember, it never hurts to ask your landlord, even if he/she is not legally required to allow pets. An exception might be possible.
- Research the types of animals thoroughly (including what it takes to care for and feed them) and decide what animal would be best suited to your needs, your lifestyle, and your physical situation. Even though you might be within your rights to have a Great Dane in your tiny studio apartment, that doesn't mean it's a wise choice.
- Get a doctor or therapist to sign a letter. There is a sample letter on page 6 of the Fair Housing Information Sheet #6 at Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. Note: your professional may not be entirely comfortable with the last paragraph of this letter. In our case, we deleted that paragraph entirely before we took it to the doctor. Not only did it work fine without it, but also the attorney at the Connecticut Fair Housing Center said she believed that paragraph was not necessary. Here's the part of the letter I used successfully:
Dear [Housing Authority/Landlord/Co-op Board]:
[Full Name of Tenant] is my patient, and has been under my care since [date]. I am intimately familiar with his/her history and with the functional limitations imposed by his/her disability. He/She meets the definition of disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act, and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Due to mental illness, [first name] has certain limitations regarding [social interaction/coping with stress/anxiety, etc.]. In order to help alleviate these difficulties, and to enhance his/her ability to live independently and to fully use and enjoy the dwelling unit you own and/or administer, I am prescribing an emotional support animal that will assist [first name] in coping with his/her disability.
- Show the letter to your landlord and tell him/her that you are requesting the animal be allowed to live with you as a reasonable accommodation. It is best (and most effective) to do this with another person present and to put the request in a short, dated note. Most landlords will give in when presented with a doctor's letter and request for accommodation, but if yours decides to be difficult, it's easy to take the next step and get some help. See Where to Go to File a Complaint or Find Help.
NOTE: The change in ADA regulations in 2010 restricting service animals to dogs does NOT limit the rights of people with disabilities under the Fair Housing Act to have service/assistance animals (including emotional support animals) of different species living in their homes. There is a memo from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development specifically stating this. It begins:
Note this was further confirmed in a HUD document dated April 25, 2013: http://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/documents/huddoc?id=servanimals_ntcfheo2013-01.pdf
This memo explains that the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) recent amendments to its Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations do not affect reasonable accommodation requests under the Fair Housing Act (FHAct) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1974 (Section 504). The DOJ’s new rules limit the definition of “service animal” in the ADA to include only dogs. The new rules also define “service animal” to exclude emotional support animals. This definition, however, does not apply to the FHAct or Section 504. Disabled individuals may request a reasonable accommodation for assistance animals in addition to dogs, including emotional support animals, under the FHAct or Section 504. In situations where both laws apply, housing providers must meet the broader FHAct/Section 504 standard in deciding whether to grant reasonable accommodation requests.