Pets in Rental Housing

Last Updated On: 3/2/2016 5:54:43 PM

What Are Your Rights and Obligations When You Have a Pet In Rental Housing?

You have a pet and want to rent a place to live.  What are your rights and responsibilities? What does the law say? What does your lease say?

The real answer is in your “rental agreement.” Whatever your rental agreement says about Pets is what you have to follow.

There are different rules for people with disabilities, who have "assistance animals.” 

What Does WV Law Say About Allowing Pets in Rental Housing?

There is no West Virginia law that prohibits having pets in rental housing. And there is no West Virginia law that permits having pets in rental housing.

The question of whether pets are permitted or not permitted is completely controlled by what is in the agreement between the landlord and the tenant.  (The “rental agreement” can be either written or verbal. )

If there is nothing about pets in the rental agreement then pets are NOT prohibited.

If there is something about pets in the rental agreement, then that’s the rule you have to follow.

Is There An Exception for Tenants with Disability?

Yes.  Even if the lease says “No Pets,” some tenants with disabilities may be allowed to have “assistance animals” to help with their disability.

There are a lot of requirements to meet the “assistance animal” exception. Click here to read another article about Assistance Animals under West Virginia law for people with disabilities.

What About “Damage,” “Disturbance,” or “Danger” caused by Pets?

A tenant will always be responsible for any damage or disturbance caused by a pet.

The lease may say pets are permitted. That does NOT mean that damage or disturbance by pets is allowed.

Even if pets are permitted, a tenant can be evicted for damage, disturbance or danger caused by a pet.

What Are The Most Common Clauses in Leases About Pets?

A landlord may have a “Pet Clause” in the lease agreement. If you sign that lease, then you are agreeing to whatever the Pet Clause says. If you don’t agree with the Pet Clause, don’t sign the lease and don’t move in to that rental unit.

Sometimes the lease may say that pets are permitted, but only with special conditions.

One example of a special condition is a “pet deposit.”  The landlord may require the tenant to pay an additional deposit in order to have a pet.  Because it’s only a “deposit” it would be refunded at the end of the tenancy as long as there is no damage or other problem caused by the pet. 

Or there might be a “pet fee.”  The landlord may require the tenant to pay an non-refundable fee in order to have a pet.  It isn’t a “deposit.” So it’s not refunded at the end of the tenancy, even if there is no damage or problem. If there is damage, the tenant will have to pay for the damage. The fee will not be used to cover the cost of damage. It’s a “fee,” not a “deposit.”

All of these things are permitted as long as they clearly stated in the rental agreement.  If there’s a written lease, the Pet Clause has to be included in the lease. IF there’s only a verbal agreement, the Pet Clause has to be specifically discussed as part of the verbal agreement. 

Once the landlord makes clear that the Pet Clause is part of the rental agreement, the tenant has two choices:

  1. Accept the rental agreement with the conditions the landlord included as part of the binding legal contract; or
  2. Walk away and find another landlord with a Pet Clause more to your liking.

What If The Lease Says “No Pets,” But The Landlord Knew I Had Pets And Let Me Move In Anyway?

You are in very dangerous territory. If the landlord changes his mind and wants you gone, you’re on shaky ground. It probably won’t matter what the landlord’s “real reason” is for wanting you out. The courts will always start by looking at the written words of the lease. If it says “no pets,” and you’ve got pets, there’s a good chance you might be evicted.

It is possible to prove in a trial that that landlord in fact knew you had pets, and “modified” the lease agreement by letting you move in with your pets. But you will need VERY strong evidence to prove this. If it’s your word against the landlord’s word, we can tell you that tenants almost always lose. You will need unusually strong evidence to convince a judge that the landlord did actually know that you had pets before you moved in, and did in fact agree to let you move in with your pets.

The best advice is -- don’t take chances. Read your lease carefully before you sign it. If the lease says “No Pets,” then get the landlord to mark that out and put his signature next to the marked out place. If the landlord is not willing to put it in writing that way, then don’t move in.

After I Move In, Can the Landlord Change the Agreement About Pets?

No, not while the rental agreement is in effect.  Once the agreement is entered, the landlord cannot change the pet rules until the current agreement runs out. If the landlord did not have any provision about pets in the rental agreement, then pets are not prohibited as long as the agreement remains in effect.

When the current lease is over and a new agreement is needed, anything can change. The landlord can change the rent amount; or require a new deposit; or change the Pet Clause. But those changes can be done only when the new agreement goes into effect.

That’s good protection if you have a long lease, such as a full year. 

That’s not much protection if you just have a month-to-month rental agreement. [In a month-to-month tenancy, the landlord only has to give “one full rental period” of advance notice in order to change the terms: rent, pet clause, or others.]

Whenever the agreement expires or is renewed, the landlord can add new provisions or prohibitions on pets to the new agreement.  At that point the tenant faces the same two choices:  stay and abide by the new rules on pets, or find another landlord and move.

What Are Common Problems Caused By Pets?

There may be no rules against the "presence" of pets in your rental home.  But if your pet causes "problems," then your might be risking an eviction. 

Most often, there are three types of pet "problems:"

  1. Damage caused by your pet.  This may include ripped or torn carpets, chewed baseboards, stains, smells or fleas.  If there is pet damage, a landlord has a choice between two options. First, the landlord may choose to make the tenant pay for the damage. Or, the landlord may choose to terminate the lease due to the damage caused by the pet.
  2. Disturbance caused by your pet. This will include annoyance to neighbors, other tenants, or members of the public caused by barking, growling, excessive odor, and the like.  It doesn’t matter whether these things don’t bother you.  The question a judge will ask is whether these things are enough to bother an ordinary, reasonable person.  If so, then such Pet Disturbance can be a reason for eviction.
  3. Danger to others caused by your pet.  Pet Danger rests on evidence that the pet is a threat to the safety of neighbors, children, other tenants, or members of the public.  If the animal has a dangerous disease, or is a risk of actual physical danger to others, then this may also be a reason for eviction.

Summary of Information

Pets are allowed, unless the rental agreement says otherwise.

The landlord cannot change the rules about pets in the middle of a rental agreement.  The landlord can impose new or different rules only when the current agreement expires and a new agreement is put in place.

Even if pets are allowed, a tenant can be evicted if the pet causes damage, disturbance, or danger to others.

As long as the agreement is clear, the landlord can require a refundable “pet deposit” or a non-refundable “pet fee.” 

Even where pets are prohibited, a tenant with a disability may be allowed to have a “assistance animal” if (1) a doctor certifies that the animal will aid the tenant in managing day-to-day activities, and (2) the animal has been trained to do work or perform tasks for the tenant with disability.

Prepared By: Kristi D. Johnson, Emily E. Koontz Memorial Scholarship Fellow 2003, Huntington office of Legal Aid of West Virginia.  Reviewed and updated 2015.

This is general legal information. For guidance about your situation, talk to a lawyer.