According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a service animal is a dog that has been “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.” With this in mind, entities must allow people with disabilities and their service animals to enter any areas where members of the public can go – which may include vacation rentals.
Research by Guide Dogs in the UK, however, found that 75% of assistance dog owners had been refused access to a service – such as self-catering alternative accommodation – because of their assistance dog.
As a topic that is making news headlines frequently, we want to unpick some of the major talking points about service animals and vacation rentals.
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ADA and service animals
Under the ADA, a “place of public accommodation” is lodging operated by a private entity that is an inn, hotel, or motel, or a facility that provides short-term rentals (i.e., less than 30 days) and boasts similar amenities to a hotel. In that sense, vacation rental owners may argue that their properties are exempt from the ADA law. This is because, in general, vacation rentals neither have rooms available on a walk-in or call-in basis nor do they accept reservations without guaranteeing a particular room until check-in.
Under U.S. law, hosts are not allowed to ask whatever they want regarding service animals and disabilities. Hosts can only ask guests two questions:
- Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
- What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
While each situation should be regarded individually, unless the vacation rental is set up similar to a short-stay hotel, it arguably does not fall under the ADA.
Does the Fair Housing Act apply to vacation rentals?
The Fair House Act (FHA) makes it illegal to discriminate against disabilities when it comes to housing. Much like the ADA, the FHA is intended to protect individuals with disabilities and is frequently brought up in the conversation of service animals and vacation rentals.
The FHA doesn’t outright cover the topic of short-term rentals; however, it does detail that “transient” or such temporary housing isn’t protected under this act. With that said, it might be difficult for guests to argue the right to service or emotional support animals in a vacation rental in the eyes of the court.
What are the rules regarding service animals and vacation rentals on listing sites?
Although the ADA may not apply in your case, many listing sites and OTAs do have their own rules and requirements about service animals. It’s always a good idea to check the policy of the website you are listing with if you are not sure.
Airbnb service animal policy
Airbnb’s service animal policy acknowledges that these dogs serve an essential purpose for their owner, and additionally, it forms part of their non-discrimination policy. This means that it is a requirement for hosts to reasonably accommodate reservations where a service animal may be a member of the visiting party. This includes listings whose house rules or policies are not pet-friendly.
If your home is strictly animal-free due to allergies or other necessary circumstances, Airbnb encourages hosts to share this information in their listing description.
Airbnb emotional support animal policy
Airbnb covers its emotional support animal policy under the entirety of the Airbnb assistance animal rules. Assistance animals take into account both service animals (i.e., seeing-eye dogs) and emotional support animals. Emotional support animals generally form part of medical treatment and/or therapy but do not perform a specific task in the way service animals do.
Emotional support animals are to be treated in the same way as service animals under Airbnb’s policies. With that said, unless there are extenuating circumstances, hosts must comply with the policy regardless of the animal being categorized as emotional support or service.
Airbnb pet policy violation
Remember that the Airbnb pet policy is an entirely separate matter from the Airbnb assistance animal policy. With that said, violation of the assistance animal policy can result in the removal of the animal under these conditions:
- The animal is out of control, and the animal’s handler doesn’t take effective action to control it
- The animal is not housebroken
Under these circumstances, hosts may request the removal of the animal, but the guest still has the option to stay at the accommodation if they choose to without the animal.
Vrbo service animal policy
Similarly, as with Airbnb, the Vrbo service animal policy requires property owners and managers in the US to accommodate any travelers who require the use of an assistance dog. This is a policy that applies regardless of the vacation rental’s normal house rules concerning animals.
The Vrbo policy states that property owners cannot request documentation for a service animal. Vrbo’s service animal policy is independent of local laws, HOA restrictions, or breed rules. Compliance with their service animal policy is necessary for hosts who want to list on this platform.
Vrbo emotional support animal policy
Vrbo has a lot more grey area when it comes to the allowance of emotional support animals. On Vrbo’s service animal policy page, they state that emotional support animals should be discussed between the host and the guest.
The Vrbo service animal policy doesn’t explicitly include emotional support animals, but remember that local laws might still require that you accommodate these animals.
Vrbo pet policy violation
Just like Airbnb, the Vrbo pet policy is distinctly different from its service animal policy. Still, there are consequences to the breaking of the service animal rules. The host can ask for the removal of the animal if the animal is causing excessive damage to the property. Even so, the complaints and Vrbo service animal policy violations will be investigated on a case-by-case basis.
Vrbo warns that violation of their service animal policy could result in the delisting of the property, temporary or permanent, for hosts or barring usage of the platform for guests.
Do vacation rentals have to allow emotional support animals?
There’s been some serious debate surrounding emotional support animals in vacation rentals. Some hosts are wary of offering their accommodation to guests with emotional support animals in fear of property damage or misuse.
While emotional support animals aren’t specifically trained to perform one task, they are medically backed and serve a good purpose to some guests with disabilities or additional needs. Remember that, at the end of the day, it’s all about the guest experience. For some guests, an emotional support animal is necessary to carry out their vacation.
Emotional support animals are not the same as service animals and are therefore not covered under the ADA. Being that ESAs aren’t covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, hosts reserve the right to refuse accommodation under this specific law. Keep in mind that other rules apply, such as the OTA policies listed above, which may require you to comply with the hosting of an emotional support animal.
Just because you have the right to refuse to host an emotional support animal, it’s important to stop and think about if you should. Remember that guest selectivity of any kind can affect the reputation and reviews of your vacation rental.
Will service animals damage my property?
On the whole, service animals are highly trained – both to perform their work and in terms of being house-trained – and therefore, it is very unlikely they would cause damage to your property. Of course, accidents can happen with any guests at your vacation rental. Consequently, it’s wise to have vacation rental insurance in place and to charge all travelers a security deposit.
In this way, hosts have the right to retain a portion (or all) of the damage deposit to compensate for any damage caused to the property.
Can I charge a fee for service animals?
The generic answer is no. The gut reaction for many hosts is to charge a pet fee, but service animals are not pets and shouldn’t be treated as such. Most listing sites, like Airbnb, state that hosts cannot charge extra fees to guests with an assistance animal.
Under some technicalities, service animals can be counted as an “additional guest” and could hypothetically be charged for an extra guest fee depending on the listing site. Regardless, it’s ill-advised to proceed with charging an extra guest fee for a service animal as there could be some serious backlash from guests.
What amenities can I offer to guests with guide dogs?
To make your vacation rental more accessible to guests who require service animals, you can take the following into consideration:
- Opt for décor with good color and tonal contrast and lighting. For example, make sure that door frames contrast with nearby walls, so a guest who has residual vision can make out where the door is.
- Ensure any circulation routes are free of hazards such as plants, furniture or other objects.
- Provide audible alarms and systems.
- Service animals require space to relieve themselves. Ideally, you will be able to provide an enclosed grass or concrete “spending area” outside, from which the service animal cannot escape and which should be cleaned regularly either by the guide dog owner, another guest or a cleaning service.
- Provide food and water bowls, disposable bags, and any other essential items
A family member has severe pet allergies – where do I stand with service animals?
Many vacation rental owners will use their property a couple of weeks per year for their own vacations. As a result, accepting service animals can pose a threat to visiting family members who suffer from severe animal allergies. According to recent research, between 10 and 20% of the population worldwide are allergic to household pets such as dogs and cats. Any allergy-sufferer will know, it’s a long process to transform a property from pet-friendly to pet-free, as dander can remain long after pets depart.
It’s best to make it explicitly clear in your house rules and listing description that your property is strictly an animal-free zone due to severe allergies. Even sites such as Airbnb understand that pet allergies can be a health and safety hazard for some, and they will not require you to host the guests if it causes serious health issues.
The takeaway: service animals are guests, not pets
In the eyes of the law, it is illegal for property owners to discriminate against people with disabilities when renting their properties. With the rise in popularity of sites such as Airbnb to find and book short-term rental properties, there has also come an increase in the negative experiences documented by travelers with disabilities.
Each vacation rental owner and property manager has a duty to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate service animals. Assistance dogs are not simply pets but rather mobility aids who receive extensive training so they can work and provide assistance to their owners.
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