Written by Lois Churchill, Director of State Monitoring Operations
A companion animal, unlike an assistive animal, is one with no special training in helping an individual cope with a disability. However, it is considered necessary for a member of a tenant household to cope with a disability.
The key words here are “disability” and “necessary”.
The individual claiming to have a companion animal must meet the definition of disabled. Handicap and disability have been determined to have the same meaning under Fair Housing law.
According to Fair Housing law, “Handicap” means, with respect to a person, a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities; a record of such and impairment; or being regarded as having such an impairment.
“Major life activities” means functions such as caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working.
If a tenant isn’t disabled, the animal is not a companion animal by law.
It is not required that a doctor be the one to verify a disability. This can be done by another professional or even a family member or close friend. However, the need for a companion animal must come from a doctor or other professional (e.g., psychologist). The form you send should ask if the animal is necessary to cope with the disability and what function it performs. It’s been medically proven that animals can lower blood pressure, help a depressed individual cope, etc. Again, is it required? If the doctor says a dog will encourage the individual to get out and exercise, it’s not serving the required purpose. Anyone can walk without a dog. Motivation is not related to a disability. Helping prevent loneliness is a good thing but anyone can be lonely. Loneliness by itself is not a disability, therefore the animal that is helping prevent the “condition” is not a companion animal by law.
An example I used to see in family housing was the doctor’s note saying that being able to keep the family animal will help little Johnny (or Jonnie) cope with the move. Well, if the child isn’t disabled the animal isn’t a companion animal by law.
Tenants are learning that “companion animals” are allowed in apartment complexes with a no pets rule and are taking advantage of the loose definition. Therefore it is important that your forms are strong and that you stick by them. It is not discrimination to say no to a non-disabled household requesting a companion animal. It is not discrimination to say no to a disabled tenant whose animal isn’t “required” to help him or her cope with their disability.
The form going to the doctor should clearly define “handicap” and ask if the tenant meets the definition. It should go on to ask how the animal in question aids in helping the tenant cope with the disability. If there is more than one animal, ask how each meets a different need. Then the form should have a check box saying “I agree if necessary to appear in a court of law to support these statements”.
While most doctors are willing to help out a patient by signing the disability statement this additional statement might make them think twice about it.