Provider Guidance on Documenting an Individual’s Need for Assistance Animals in Housing

This article provides best practices for documenting an individual’s need for assistance animals in housing. It offers a summary of information that a housing provider may need to know from a health care professional about an individual’s need for an assistance animal in housing.

It is intended to help individuals with disabilities explain to their health care professionals the type of information that housing providers may need to help them make sometimes difficult legal decisions under fair housing laws. It also will help an individual with a disability and their health care provider understand what information may be needed to support an accommodation request when the disability or disability-related need for an accommodation is not readily observable or known by the housing provider.

Personal Knowledge.

When providing this information, health care professionals should use personal client knowledge of their patient/client – i.e., the knowledge used to diagnose, advise, counsel, treat, or provide health care or other disability-related services to their patient/client. Information relating to an individual’s disability and health conditions must be kept confidential and cannot be shared with others.

As a best practice, documentation contemplated in certain circumstances by the Assistance Animals Guidance is recommended to include the following general information:

  • The patient’s name,
  • Whether the health care professional has a professional relationship with that patient/client involving the provision of health care or disability-related services, and
  • The type of animal(s) for which the reasonable accommodation is sought (i.e., dog, cat, bird, rabbit, hamster, gerbil, other rodent, fish, turtle, other specified type of domesticated animal, or other specified unique animal).

Disability-Related Need.

A disability for purposes of fair housing laws exists when a person has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Addiction caused by current, illegal use of a controlled substance does not qualify as a disability. As a best practice, it is recommended that individuals seeking reasonable accommodations for support animals ask health care professionals to provide information related to the following:

  • Whether the patient has a physical or mental impairment,
  • Whether the patient’s impairment(s) substantially limit at least one major life activity or major bodily function, and
  • Whether the patient needs the animal(s) (because it does work, provides assistance, or performs at least one task that benefits the patient because of his or her disability, or because it provides therapeutic emotional support to alleviate a symptom or effect of the disability of the patient/client, and not merely as a pet).

Additionally, if the animal is not a dog, cat, small bird, rabbit, hamster, gerbil, other rodent, fish, turtle, or other small, domesticated animal that is traditionally kept in the home for pleasure rather than for commercial purposes, it may be helpful for clients to ask health care professionals to provide the following additional information:

  • The date of the last consultation with the patient,
  • Any unique circumstances justifying the patient’s need for the particular animal (if already owned or identified by the individual) or particular type of animal(s), and
  • Whether the health care professional has reliable information about this specific animal or whether they specifically recommended this type of animal.

It is also recommended that the health care professional sign and date any documentation provided and provide contact information and any professional licensing information.

What are assistance animals?

Assistance animals do work, perform tasks, provide assistance, or provide emotional support for a person with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits at least one major life activity or bodily function.

What are physical or mental impairments?

Physical or mental impairments include: any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of the following body systems: Neurological; musculoskeletal; special sense organs; respiratory, including speech organs; cardiovascular; reproductive; digestive; genito-urinary; hemic and lymphatic; skin; and endocrine; or

Any mental or psychological disorder, such as intellectual disability, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disability; or

Diseases and conditions such as orthopedic, visual, speech and hearing impairments, cerebral palsy, autism, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Human Immunodeficiency Virus infection, mental retardation, emotional illness, drug addiction (other than addiction caused by current, illegal use of a controlled substance) and alcoholism.56

What are major life activities or major bodily functions?

They are: seeing, hearing, walking, breathing, performing manual tasks, caring for one’s self, learning, speaking, and working.

Other impairments – based on specific facts in individual cases — may also substantially limit at least one major life activity or bodily function.

Examples of work, tasks, assistance, and emotional support.

Some examples of work and tasks that are commonly performed by service dogs include:

  • Assisting individuals who are blind or have low vision with navigation and other tasks,
  • Alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to the presence of people or sounds,
  • Providing non-violent protection or rescue work,
  • Pulling a wheelchair,
  • Alerting a person with epilepsy to an upcoming seizure and assisting the individual during the seizure,
  • Alerting individuals to the presence of allergens,
  • Retrieving the telephone or summoning emergency assistance, or
  • Providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to individuals with mobility

Some other examples of work, tasks or other types of assistance provided by animals include:

  • Helping persons with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors,
  • Reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medication,
  • Alerting a person with diabetes when blood sugar is high or low,
  • Taking an action to calm a person with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack,
  • Assisting the person in dealing with disability-related stress or pain,
  • Assisting a person with mental illness to leave the isolation of home or to interact with others,
  • Enabling a person to deal with the symptoms or effects of major depression by providing a reason to live, or
  • Providing emotional support that alleviates at least one identified symptom or effect of a physical or mental impairment

What are examples of a patient’s need for a unique animal or unique circumstances?

  • The animal is individually trained to do work or perform tasks that cannot be performed by a
  • Information from a health care professional confirms that:
    • Allergies prevent the person from using a dog, or
    • Without the animal, the symptoms or effects of the person’s disability will be significantly
  • The individual seeks a reasonable accommodation to a land use and zoning law, Homeowners Association (HOA) rule, or condominium or co-op
  • The individual seeks to keep the animal outdoors at a house with a fenced yard where the animal can be appropriately