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Fuzzy Rules On Emotional Support Animals Are Hurting Some Missouri Landlords

Katie Bartels and her emotional support cat Hank, who was certified as an ESA by a therapist, not an online service. 01-20-20
Jonathan Ahl | St. Louis Public Radio
Katie Bartels and her emotional support cat, Hank, who was certified as an ESA by a therapist, not an online service.

If you have a little bit of money and can answer a 10-question online survey, you can get an official-looking certificate stating that you need an emotional support animal. 

You don’t have to talk to anyone or go through an assessment.

Because it’s so easy to obtain the documentation and the laws on accommodations for emotional support animals are murky, some people are using the certification to get out of paying pet deposits and monthly fees to keep an animal in an apartment.

The generally accepted definition of an emotional support animal is similar to what the American Kennel Club posts on its website: “Emotional support animals (ESAs) refer to dogs and other pets that provide emotional support and comfort to their owners on a daily basis. ESAs legally must be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional like a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist.”

The federal Fair Housing Act protects people with disabilities from being denied having their emotional support animals live with them. That protections apply to pet deposits and additional rent.

But some renters in Rolla have been going online to have their pets certified as ESAs in order to escape the fees.

“There are unscrupulous people online,” said Matt Butcher, a Rolla lawyer who has represented landlords. “It’s easy to get a piece of paper that says your dog or cat is an ESA, even when it’s not.”

Landlords are hesitant to challenge the validity of documents, in part because of fears of being cited by the Department of Housing and Urban Development for denying a disabled person’s rights.

Taking legal action against a tenant or risking a lawsuit isn’t worth a $300 pet deposit, Butcher said, adding that the laws need to be clearer on who is qualified to give out the documentation on ESAs.

“We’re starting, slowly but surely, to see legal action and professional action taken against people who use their credentials inappropriately by issuing letters that don’t have basis in fact,” Butcher said.

Katie Bartels is a renter in Rolla who went about getting her cat, Hank, certified as an emotional support animal the right way. After her grandfather died, she went into a deep depression. Already facing other anxiety issues, the environmental engineering graduate student at Missouri University of Science and Technology said she started going to counseling.

“My therapist actually mentioned, ‘Hey, you know, Hank seems to be important in your life. Do you want to start the process of getting him registered as an emotional support animal?’ So I did,” Bartels said.

She brought Hank into sessions. The therapist did some tests and assessments, and then certified him as an emotional support animal.

“Sometimes, he is the reason I get out of bed,” she said.

Bartels said she did show the papers to her current landlord, who usually doesn’t allow pets in the apartment. But she paid a pet deposit anyway, because she said it was the right thing to do.

And she’s not happy that some people are abusing the system.

“When people go online just so they avoid paying fees, it is a slap in the face. And so I understand why landlords could be angry and upset,” Bartels said.

Part of the confusion is the difference between ESAs and service animals. The latter are highly trained and help people with disabilities including blindness to seizures. ESAs are not required to have any special training, though they can help with a range of mental health issues.

One state lawmaker is looking to tighten up the rules. Rep. Chrissy Sommer, R-St. Charles, is sponsoring a bill that would help define what service animals and emotional support animals are, their requirements and their owner’s rights.

“If they really need an emotional support animal, we need to make sure landlords can feel comfortable knowing that if this person is claiming that, that it truly is one,” Sommers said.

Until there are new laws in place, landlords will have to decide if it’s worth it to challenge ESA documentation. Cassie Boness, a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Missouri who has researched emotional support animals, is skeptical about their effectiveness and said landlords are in an impossible position.

“They don’t want a complaint filed against them or an ADA violation, and kind of navigating those differences can be very difficult if you’re just a general member of the public without any specialized knowledge,” Boness said.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

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Jonathan Ahl is the Newscast Editor and Rolla correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.