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Service and Support Animals: Pet or Guest?

Service and Support Animals: Pet or Guest?

Service and Support Animals Explained

As a property manager or host, there doesn’t seem to be an end to questions about pets. Can I bring my pet? What if I have a large pet? How about a puppy, can I bring a puppy? We have a hamster, is that okay? There’s no question that pet-friendly homes bring in more revenue than non-pet friendly homes, which makes them among the most popular short-term rentals in the country.

In this day and age, most people who travel with pets understand what is expected of them as a short-term renter. They look for homes listed as Pet Friendly when booking their stay, and the majority of them adhere to the rules and pay the pet deposit without issue. But what happens if a home is NOT pet friendly and someone brings an assistance animal?

Let’s break down the difference between Service and Emotional Support Animals.

Service Animals

A service animal is defined as a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or mental disability. This definition was taken from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and is consistent with international standards. It’s worth it to note here that only dogs (and, believe it or not, miniature horses) are classified as service animals. Sadly, your hamster does not qualify.

Service animals are not technically pets; therefore, disabled owners do not have to pay pet fees. Service animals must remain with the owner at all times and may not be left in the home alone. The ADA requires three things for a dog to be a service dog:

  • The person helped must have a life-limiting disability. This can be physical or mental.
  • The dog must be trained to recognize and respond to the handler’s disability by doing either work or tasks.
  • The dog must not cause a disruption in public. Service dogs must be both housebroken and leashed (except when the dog needs to be off-leash to provide disability-related work or tasks).

If a dog’s service status is not obvious, you cannot ask about a person’s disability or require work or task performance or documentation of any kind. You may ask only two questions to figure out whether the dog is a service dog:

  1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

You cannot ask about the nature or extent of an individual’s disability or require documentation, such as proof that the animal has been certified, trained or licensed as a service animal, or require the animal to wear an identifying vest.

What are the rules regarding Service Animals in short-term rentals?

In short, a service animal isn’t a pet. It’s a guest. Service Animals are allowed in short-term rentals in accordance with the requirements set forth by the ADA. You cannot ask or require an individual with a disability to pay a surcharge or deposit, even if people accompanied by pets are required to pay such fees.

If you normally charge individuals for the damage pets cause, an individual with a disability may be charged for damage caused by his or her service animal. (This is where your Safely policy comes into play!)

Emotional Support Animals (ESA)

ESA are animals that are used as part of medical treatment and/or therapy to assist with an individual’s daily functional tasks, but are not limited to a specific type of animal and are not required to be trained to assist an individual in a particular task.

An ESA is a pet that provides disability-relieving emotional support to an individual but is not necessarily trained to do so. Emotional support animals are not required to undergo specialized training and their primary role is to provide their disabled owners with emotional comfort.

Owners of Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) must provide a letter from a licensed medical provider, who has provided in-person care to the patient on at least one occasion, verifying that the ESA provides support alleviating one or more symptoms or effects of a disability or disability-related need. As a short-term rental owner, you can request this documentation but little else.

In most states it is a misdemeanor for a person to misrepresent himself or herself as using a service or support animal.

Does the ADA allow Emotional Support Animals in my rental?

While the ADA does not grant owners of ESAs the right to bring these animals in accommodations that do not permit pets, the HUD’s Fair Housing Act does allow for disabled owners of Emotional Support Animals to reside in housing–even if it has a “No Pets” policy–as a reasonable accommodation, and no fee may be charged to the pet owner.

But, you may say, housing is different from a short-term rental, isn’t it? In the end, the area remains quite gray.

Local and state laws regarding ESAs in short-term rentals have begun in earnest, and the laws do vary from place to place. Airbnb, VRBO, and other OTAs each have their own ESA policies in place. It’s best to cover yourself on all fronts regarding Emotional Support Animals – know the current regulations in your state and make your house rules clear.

Emotional Support Animals and Short-Term Rentals

If you’re concerned about allowing ESAs in your short-term rental, it’s important to consider that making reasonable accommodations for those with disabilities will go a long way with your guests and their reviews outlining your attention to their needs. Bad reviews from a very loud guest can cause much more harm to your short-term rental business than potential damage from a pet. 

However, you can ease your concern with the right short-term rental insurance in place. With Safely, not only can you avoid bad reviews by never having to involve a guest to get a claim resolved, but pet-caused damage is also covered – providing the same level of protection to properties that allow pets, as the ones that don’t. Obviously, if a property doesn’t allow pets and a guest brings one that causes damage, it’s covered. But even if a property does allow pets, you’re covered just the same. The only thing to note is that any pet fees collected at the time of the reservation may be deducted from the total claim amount.


Ultimately, allowing ESAs at your property is up to you, but with the right coverage in place, your property is protected from any potential damage, and your reputation is secure by avoiding uncomfortable situations that could lead to a bad review. So in the end, just because you can refuse an Emotional Support Animal, it’s important to ask yourself if it’s worth it.

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