The Legal Ins and Outs of Pet Ownership and Housing

by Robyn Watts, Associated Counsel, The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

"My landlord has demanded that we get rid of our dog or he's going to evict us. I got the dog to help my husband; he had two heart attacks and was really depressed before we got Daisy. Now, he's a different man. He takes her out on walks, he's lost weight, and he's happier. I'm really concerned that this recent conflict with our landlord may send my husband over the edge. He's already really distraught. If we have to give up Daisy, he may die! Please help!"

This quote represents an actual call to The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Every day, the ASPCA and Pet Partners receive similar calls and emails from individuals across the country regarding conflicts between their housing situations and their pets. Sometimes the conflicts involve the landlord and sometimes they involve other tenants or neighbors; oftentimes, the pet is caught in the middle of what is, at the root, a people problem.

Unfortunately, pet owners are too often intimidated by landlords and neighbors, and in a panic, they get rid of their pet—even though, under the law, they might have been able to keep their pet! Therefore, it is very important for pet owners to know their rights with respect to pets in housing and to immediately hire an attorney should they encounter such a problem. The following overview of pets in housing laws will serve as a start in this education process, but it should in no way substitute for legal advice from your local attorney.1

As we have moved from an agricultural society to a post-industrial one, cats and dogs have become more important and valued members of our families. They live in our homes rather than outside in the yard. Some owners even celebrate their pets' birthdays, include them in family pictures, and recognize their passing with burials at special cemeteries. Moreover, studies have shown that having a pet in the household, can improve one's health, particularly for the elderly, and may assist with the social development of children.

While there is societal recognition of pets' new status in our lives, at the same time, there seems to be a counter-movement to contain their integration into our lives. More and more apartment leases contain no-pet clauses and condominiums have tightened their policies against pets. Some cities and towns are clamping down on dogs and their owners by, for example, enforcing leash laws more and expanding the definitions of "dangerous dog" and "nuisance" as applied to pets.2

Often, it seems that pets have become a red herring in a conflict that is really about something else. For example, the real estate market in New York City has recently become quite tight and very expensive. The ASPCA frequently hears about landlords who try to use pets as an excuse to evict tenants living in rent-controlled apartments, in order to lease the apartments to others who will have to pay a lot more. In fact, the New York City Council expressed this very concern about "widespread abuses by building owners or their agents" as a reason for adopting its "Pet Law," which protects tenants under certain conditions from "retaliatory eviction" by landlords who seek to evict tenants for reasons which are, in reality, unrelated to pets.3

Westchester County, just outside of New York City, likewise adopted a similar pet law in recognition of the increasingly important role that pets play in our lives. The County stated that: "because household pets are harbored for reasons of safety and companionship, as well as the physical and emotional well-being of their owners and there is currently a housing emergency, it is necessary to protect pet owners from retaliatory and other evictions and to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of tenants who harbor pets."4

Know Your Rights


Despite abuses by landlords and added restrictions, laws do exist to protect individuals and their pets in housing, not only in New York State but throughout the country. One's rights as a tenant to keep a pet, however, can depend on a number of variables, such as:

  • where you live and your city/town's local laws.
  • what type of housing you live in (e.g. rental, condominium, federally/state/city assisted).
  • your physical and/or mental status.
  • your pet's role in your life (e.g. guide dog, hearing dog, or other type of service animal).
  • your age.

For example, if you live in federal housing, then federal law applies. Currently, persons living in federally-assisted housing designated for senior citizens and persons with disabilities cannot be denied housing because they have a companion animal.5 In October 1998, this opportunity was extended to all residents of most federal housing (except those persons who use vouchers to secure housing on the private market and residents of private developments receiving section 8 assistance).6 This new law enables the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to adopt reasonable rules regarding pet ownership in public housing; for example, such regulations might include a limit on the number of pets or a prohibition on demonstrably dangerous animals. Unfortunately, residents of federal housing will have to wait until HUD promulgates regulations before bringing a pet into their homes.

A number of states have enacted laws similar to the federal law allowing pets in public housing for elderly and disabled, including for example, Massachusetts (all state-aided housing),7 California (elderly and disabled housing)8, and New Jersey (public and private housing for the elderly).9 If you live in state or city-funded housing, you should call the local agency or entity overseeing the housing program and request their manual (e.g. The New York City Housing Authority Manual), to find out their regulations regarding pets in housing.

If you live in a private rental building, your first reference for a policy on pets is your own lease. If the lease is silent on pets, then barring any other local health, zoning or nuisance laws, you can keep a pet in your apartment (always check with an attorney versed in the local housing laws or your local Bar Association). On the other hand, if the lease does include a no-pets clause, there may be local laws that can supercede this clause under certain conditions. In other words, a no-pet clause is not always the end of the story, and you should consult a local attorney to see if you have options. Likewise, if you live in or own a condominium or cooperative, look to the condominium's or cooperative's rules or by-laws and consult an attorney to see if there are other local laws that may apply.

Moreover, private landlords in a few states and cities, including Hawaii and San Francisco, California, have begun recognizing that responsible pet owners make responsible tenants and have been working in concert with local humane societies to establish "open door" policies for tenants with pets. If you live in these areas, contact your local humane society or society for the prevention of cruelty to animals for more information.

If you have a disability, federal, state and local housing laws prohibit discrimination against you. The laws may require landlords to make "reasonable accommodations" that allow you to keep your pet in housing. Likewise, service animals (which legally are not considered pets) specially trained to assist people with disabilities must also be allowed in housing.

The categories of service animals are no longer just guide and hearing dogs, but also include dogs or other animals that are specifically trained to help people cope with, and recover from, a variety of physical and mental illnesses such as stroke, epilepsy, and depression. You may be required by a landlord to provide documentation confirming that you have a disability and that the animal is necessary to help you have full use and enjoyment of the dwelling and its common areas, such as the laundry room, swimming pool, and lawns. The federal Fair Housing Act, and your state and local civil rights laws have more information about animals that are necessary for a person's health, and definitions of who is protected to have pets or service animals in housing that has a "no pets" policy.

Innovative lawyers, judges, and organizations such as Pet Partners, increasingly recognize the myriad ways that animals can help us. They work to promote acceptance of pets and service animals in the wide variety of housing options. More information can be found in the Service Animal FAQs: Housing section.

Responsibility Is the Key


While pets can add a wonderful dimension to our home life, the ASPCA, Pet Partners, and other animal welfare organizations, advocate for not just pet ownership in housing but for responsible pet ownership in housing. While your building may allow pets, in most localities, pets that create a public health problem (by for example, continually urinating in the building), or a nuisance (e.g. excessive barking), or a danger (e.g. biting) can be prohibited nevertheless.

Responsible pet owners must, first of all, follow all local and state public health, animal control and animal cruelty laws. They should ensure that their animals have all necessary licenses and vaccinations. Owners should also consider spaying and neutering their pets for pet population control reasons and also to prevent health and behavioral problems. Finally, responsible owners should designate alternate caretakers for their pets in the event of their own illness or death.

With respect to responsible pet ownership in multiple dwellings, when pets are walked or carried in the common areas, they should always be restrained by leashes or in carriers. Owners should pick up their pets' waste and such waste should be thrown away in sealed bags, as to not create smells. In particular, dogs should be trained not to jump and to sit and stay on command.

In general, problems should be avoided before they can escalate and animal owners should accommodate non-animal owners as much as possible. For example, if you know that a certain person in the building is afraid of dogs, don't ride the elevator with them. Some people have had bad experiences with dogs in the past or they simply are afraid of them for no apparent reason at all. You can't change them, so you should respect their feelings, even if their fear of your particular dog may not reasonable. On the other hand, responsible building management should create "pet committees" to set ground rules and to resolve any disputes about pets in the building.

The ASPCA regularly receives calls where a dispute has escalated to the point where things have become violent (against people or animals) and the police, lawyers, and the building management have become involved. It is far better to prevent a confrontation or conflict, than it is have to hire a lawyer to defend you in a dispute, even if the law might ultimately be on your side.

Home May Not Always Be a Castle


While most of this article has addressed housing situations where one is renting, even where you own, you may encounter problems with your neighbors or local laws. For example, there may be local zoning or health code laws which limit the number of pets you can keep. There may also be nuisance laws which can be applied to barking dogs in your area. Again, problems should be avoided before they escalate. If you know that your neighbor does not like dogs, never let off your dog leash even for a moment and enclose your backyard with a strong, reliable fence.10  The ASPCA has received countless emails and calls about tragic situations where someone's dog wanders onto another's property for half a minute and is shot to death by a neighbor. While the neighbor's reaction is cruel and extreme, under most state laws, they would probably not be convicted if they can prove they were protecting themselves or their own animals.

Home Is Where Your Pet Is


If the issue is finding a pet friendly residence in the first place, here are a few recommended strategies. First of all, don't limit yourself to looking only at buildings that have clear pet friendly policies. Speak to the landlord in person and once s/he gets to know you, you can bring up the topic of your pet and try to negotiate the issue.

It helps if you can make a good case for your pet: for example, show documentation to prove that your pet's registrations and vaccinations are up to date, that your pet has been neutered or spayed (since this cuts down on behavioral problems and ensures that there won't suddenly be a pet population explosion in the apartment), and that your pet has passed obedience training. Provide references from your former landlord or veterinarian. If the landlord is still not receptive to your pet, you may offer a separate pet deposit or make certain promises in a special pet rider to the lease, such as, you will only use the service elevator or back door to take your pet outside, or you'll keep your pet out of common areas, such as the laundry room. You could also offer to arrange for the landlord to meet your pet in person before making a final decision.

In conclusion, the restrictions on pets in housing and the use of the pet issue by landlords to intimidate tenants have had a real fallout within society. As in the example given at the beginning of this article, people can suffer, emotionally and physically, from the stress of being forced to choose between their homes and their pets, and animals are often needlessly abandoned and euthanized.

The Regional Shelter Study, sponsored by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy, examined why people relinquish their dogs and cats to shelters. Of the 5,005 animals relinquished in the study, 443 or approximately 9% of them were relinquished due to problems with a landlord.11 Most animals relinquished to shelters are, unfortunately, euthanized. So for some people, the real choice is not just between their home or their pet, but whether or not they will be forced to leave and become homeless (or relocate) or whether their pet will be euthanized.

Hopefully, with the information provided in this article as a start, along with knowing your rights and hiring an attorney when necessary, you minimize the chances of being forced to choose between your pet and your home.

Notes

  1. The ASPCA Legal Department responds to these inquiries about pets in housing by providing referrals and information, but we are not able to provide legal advice or act as the personal attorney for individual tenants. If you encounter a pets in housing problem, since this area of the law can be complex, we strongly recommend that you immediately obtain a lawyer to represent you. If legal fees are an issue, we recommend contacting your local bar association for a referral for an attorney who might take the case pro bono or for reduced fees.
  2. For the most part, this article refers to dogs and cats since they are often the pets most visible and problematic to landlords. Other types of pet ownership, such as rabbits, fish, birds, etc., are equally valued by the ASPCA and Pet Partners.
  3. NYC Administrative Code, section 27-2009.1.
  4. Westchester County Code, section 695.01.
  5. Housing and Urban-Rural Recovery Act of 1983, 12 U.S.C. section 170r-1.
  6. P.L. 105-276, 112 Stat. 2461 (Title V, Section 526 in Conference Report 105-769).
  7. In Massachusetts, individual elderly and disabled tenants living in state-assisted housing, along with entire multifamily state-assisted housing complexes, may apply for a waiver of the no-pet rule. The waiver can be denied, but in general, the program has good guidelines and is well-administered. Mass. Gen. Laws Ann., ch. 23B, sec. 3.
    Cal. Health & Safety Code section 19901.
  8. N.J. Stat. Ann. section 2A: 42-103.
  9. Likewise, if you know your neighbor doesn't like cats and has set out traps in his yard, you can notify your local SPCA or humane society since the traps may be illegal, but also seriously consider keeping your cats inside the home at all times.
  10. Dr. John C. New, et. al.,"Moving: Relinquishing Animals," Journal of Applied Welfare Science, 2 (2), 83-96.

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