Millions of Americans have pets in their households and benefit from the unconditional love they bring. There are also countless health benefits that come with having a companion animal. But not all landlords and condo associations recognize these benefits and allow tenants or residents to keep pets in their units. However, if you require an emotional support animal (ESA) to relieve the symptoms associated with a mental health condition, you are afforded legal protections under state and federal law.
Pets can be a crucial source of support and comfort. In addition to providing affection and lifting spirits, research shows that pets also offer a wide variety of health benefits — emotionally, psychologically, and physically. Not only can they help with relieving the anxiety or stress related to certain events, but interacting with pets can increase good moods overall.
Studies indicate that having a companion animal by your side can:
Significantly, a large study conducted last year revealed that those who own dogs are 24% less likely to die from any cause. In cases in which the person had already suffered a stroke or heart attack, they were 31% less likely to succumb to cardiovascular disease. Additionally, dog owners who walk their pets are found to get up to 30 minutes more exercise each day than those who don’t.
Although the health benefits of having a pet are well-documented, it’s vital to distinguish them from emotional support animals. Notably, ESAs are not classified as pets or service animals. They are specifically prescribed by licensed healthcare providers to help individuals with mental disabilities cope — and they can be particularly important to those who suffer from anxiety, depression, or other debilitating mental health conditions.
An ESA can assist an individual with depression or anxiety in several different ways. ESAs can support emotional functioning by helping with establishing social connections, acting as a buffer in situations that might feel uncomfortable, and providing protection from low moods. ESAs have been found to boost the production of the neurotransmitters in the body that stabilize one’s mood, including dopamine and serotonin.
Because emotional support animals require walking, grooming, feeding, and playtime, they can make a person suffering from depression feel they have a purpose. They essentially force the individual to get moving and motivated since the animal needs their attention. Effectively, an ESA takes a person’s focus off their own problems and redirects their mind toward the animal’s care. Importantly, ESAs can also help ease the symptoms associated with panic attacks, bipolar disorder, phobias, and various other psychological disorders.
It can be easier to keep an animal in your condo or apartment if your HOA or landlord allows pets. However, it’s vital to understand that you have certain legal protections under Florida law and the federal Fair Housing Act if you require an emotional support animal — regardless of a “no pets” policy. If you have a mental health condition and believe you would benefit from having an ESA, the first step is speaking with a licensed healthcare professional about your symptoms. In the event that they determine an ESA would be beneficial to managing your condition, they will provide you with an emotional support animal letter.
Once a housing provider is in receipt of this letter, they are entitled to conduct a meaningful inquiry as to the need for the animal if the emotional disability is not apparent. Since these letters are usually very brief to comply with a medical professional’s confidentiality obligations, they are usually subjected to a substantial amount of scrutiny by housing providers. If the documentation is reliable, the landlord is legally required to support an accommodation.
Critically, a law was passed in 2020 that specifies what housing providers are — and are not — allowed to do when it comes to ESAs. Although a housing provider can ask for certain information to support a request for an ESA, they are not permitted to require disclosure of a mental health condition or its severity. They are also prohibited from denying housing based upon an applicant’s failure to provide information they are not allowed to request, including medical records.
It is against the law to knowingly misrepresent a pet as an ESA in Florida. Doing so could potentially result in second-degree misdemeanor charges punishable by up to two months in jail, a $500 fine, and 30 hours of community service.
If you think you might require an emotional support animal to help alleviate the symptoms of a mental health condition, it’s essential to consult with a knowledgeable attorney who can discuss your legal rights. The Law Offices of Herb M. Milgrim, P.A. is committed to providing high-quality representation to clients for a variety of condo matters related to emotional support animals.
Serving the needs of clients throughout Florida, we offer adept advocacy and diligent representation for matters concerning emotional support animals in Broward, Dade, and Palm Beach Counties, as well as Miami, Naples, Brickell, Hollywood, Davie, Pembroke Pines, Hallandale, Sunny Isles, Aventura, North Miami, Boca Raton, and West Palm Beach. In housing matters, we only represent owners — never the condo associations or their boards. To schedule a consultation, we welcome you to contact us at (954) 966-3909.