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.
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.
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.
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
For Airbnb, 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.
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.
HomeAway VRBO service animal policy
Similarly, as with Airbnb, the HomeAway and 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 HomeAway policy states that property owners cannot request documentation for a service animal. They can only ask the following questions: whether the service dog is required because of a disability, and what work the dog has been trained to carry out.
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.
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.
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 will cause 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.