Recently the legal department of the California Association of Realtors® (CAR) released a memorandum dealing with the portion of landlord-tenant law that relates to the subject of pets and animals. It provides useful information for both landlords and tenants, as well as for real estate agents who get involved with leasing and/or managing property.
In reviewing such laws it is important to keep in mind that most of the rules need to come with a footnote or to be stated as "in general." This is because there are all sorts of exceptions if the animal is a service animal (such as a seeing-eye dog) or an animal (sometimes called a companion or comfort animal) that is used to ameliorate a disability. By law, animals that fit into those categories are not considered pets, and different standards apply.
First, then, let us review the rules as they apply in general, remembering that there will be exceptions for service animals and animals used to mitigate a disability.
It is perfectly legal for landlords to prohibit pets. Moreover, it is legal for a landlord to discriminate among pets. A landlord could have a "no-dogs" policy, but might allow other kinds of pets. Conversely, a "cats-only" policy would also be legal. Landlords may even specify that certain breeds are prohibited whereas others may be allowed.
In California - thanks to a law passed just last year– a landlord cannot require that a dog or cat, or any other type of animal, be declawed or devocalized as a condition of rental. A landlord could, though, require that any pets be spayed or neutered. Who knew such things?
Often landlords are willing to take on pets provided that the tenant will pay a deposit that is higher than normal. This is perfectly legal; but it is subject to California's security deposit law which only allows for a maximum security deposit of two months for unfurnished rentals and three months for furnished rentals. Calling it a "pet deposit" does not put it into a special category which avoids that limit.
As a matter of fact, the CAR memo suggests, "it makes more sense to simply charge a higher security deposit rather than creating a separate pet deposit fee." Among other things, doing that "prevents unnecessary arguments or confusion if money in the pet deposit is needed for cleaning or damages not caused by pets." Another pet-related recommendation is that, "it is a good idea to add some specific provisions to the lease itself or in an addendum to the lease which directly regulate animal activity." "The benefit of adding such detailed provisions is that it makes it clear what rules the tenant must follow when keeping a pet on the property. Also it makes it easier for the landlord to address and possibly evict a tenant for not following the specified rules."
As we have noted, the rules are different when it comes to service or companion animals. In those cases, even if there is a no-pets policy, if a disabled tenant "requests to keep a service animal or other animal and it is a reasonable accommodation of the tenant's disability, the owner would have to allow the tenant to keep the animal."
This can be dicey. As a general rule, landlords may not inquire about a tenant's disability. But the CAR memo points out the following:
However, if a tenant asks for an animal and need for the animal is not obvious, then the landlord may further inquire. For example, a tenant who suffers from an anxiety disorder, which may not be apparent, may require a cat as a comfort animal. When a tenant asks for an accommodation, the tenant and landlord must engage in what is called a "good faith interactive process" to determine how best to accommodate the tenant's disability. If the need for the animal is not obvious the landlord could ask for verification regarding the nexus between keeping the animal and the tenant's disability. A tenant can satisfy this by providing written verification. Typically this written verification is from a medical practitioner, although it is not required that it be from a medical doctor and other forms of proof may be acceptable depending on the circumstances.
As noted, this can be dicey.
While California and Federal law are generally the same regarding service and comfort animals, California law goes further in that the same "reasonable accommodations" must also be made for a person who is licensed to train a service animal.
California landlords have no special liability with respect to the behavior of pets allowed on the premises, unless the landlord has knowledge of a pet's dangerous propensities and the landlord has done nothing about it. It is the owner of the pet who has strict liability. Nonetheless, landlords who allow pets should review their insurance with respect to coverage for injury or damages caused by a tenant's pet. They also should be sure what, if any, exemptions are made for certain breeds. Finally, it's not a bad idea for a landlord to require that the tenant maintain a 'renter's insurance' policy that will provide the tenant with coverage if his or her animal causes harm to someone.