Working in landlord-tenant law, Oakland attorney Clifford Fried has seen his fair share of bogus service animals. But one particular cat owner — unfortunately, or maybe presciently, named Kitty — was exceptional. While renting an apartment in San Mateo County, Kitty began amassing a brood of felines, despite the property's no-pets clause. She already had acquired four cats by the time her landlord got wind of them. By then, Kitty was habitually flushing cat litter down the toilet, posing a major threat to the building's plumbing system. The landlord finally confronted her. Kitty's cats had to go.
"Then a letter came in from a doctor, saying, 'This cat helps detect seizures,'" Fried recalled. It turned out that Kitty had found a loophole in California housing law that allows pet owners to bypass no-animal prohibitions in just about any commercial property. In both San Francisco and the East Bay, it's actually fairly easy to get a pet certified as a "service animal" for a disability.
Although the federal Americans with Disabilities Act only recognizes dogs that are trained to perform a specific task (e.g., guide a visually impaired person, or alert a diabetic when her blood-sugar level is low), counties have also dispensed service licenses for animals whose role is purely "emotional" or "therapeutic." In fact, anybody can go on the Internet and order a license from one of the myriad "service animal registries" operating right now. All you have to do is check a box for your disability (it can be anything from asthma to separation anxiety) and shell out $64.95.
California is one of the only states that require official identification for service animals, and it's supposed to come from a county rather than a private company. In San Francisco County, you have to present proof of residency and a signed letter from a doctor saying that the animal helps cope with a disability; and in Alameda County, you also have to prove that the animal has been trained. But most business owners or landlords won't demand to see an animal's ID for fear of lawsuit — federal law prohibits them from asking specific questions about the pet owner's disability or demanding paperwork from an animal-training school. Although a skeptical landlord is allowed to ask what task the animal performs, Fried said the line of interrogation can't go any further than that. Contesting a signed affidavit from a doctor is extremely difficult and can often lead to a costly lawsuit.
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