HOAs, Pets, and Assistance Animals

By Tyler LaMarr, Community Association Lawyer

We all know someone whose dog or cat is much more than just a pet.  Well, for purposes of the Fair Housing Act, they may be right. Community associations must be careful as they adopt rules and regulations regarding animal restrictions because it is easy to run afoul of federal laws like the Fair Housing Act (FHA) or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which provide homeowners with special rights.

Generally speaking community associations can adopt and enforce animal restrictions including an outright ban on all pets.  However, certain animals are not considered “pets” under federal law. For example, seeing eye dogs for the blind are considered service animals – not pets – and therefore cannot be banned by the association’s rules.  Less obvious examples include companion or comfort animals for people who suffer from a disability such as post traumatic stress syndrome – such comfort and companion animals also are not considered “pets” under federal law and cannot be banned from the community.

Not surprisingly, some residents try to overcome community pet restrictions by making a bogus claim that their pet is needed to ameliorate a disability. Community managers are well within their rights to require proof from a medical professional or some other qualified person who can verify the existence of a disability and confirm the need for an assistance animal.  Unlike service animals, companion and comfort animals are not required to be certified with special training.  Also, keep in mind assistance animals are not always cats and dogs – disability laws require reasonable accommodations for miniature ponies, pot-belly pigs, ferrets, or any other animal that improves the mental or physical health of a disabled person. Furthermore, while the Association must provide reasonable accommodations for assistance animals, the Association need not tolerate nuisances from such animals.  For example, nuisance rules regarding feces and excessive noise apply equally to assistance animals and ordinary pets.

Remember that penalties for an FHA or ADA violation can be expensive, and can garner negative publicity for the HOA so it is always a good idea to consult with an attorney to ensure that Association rules are in compliance with federal and state law.