Your condominium or homeowners community may ban pets, but Florida and federal fair housing laws require boards to make exceptions for owners with disabilities.
Most people realize these laws cover service animals trained to aid people suffering from physical disabilities, such blindness or hearing-impairment.
But laws protecting people who rely on emotional support animals, so-called prescription pets, tend to be less understood by communities and owners. These pets help those with mental and emotional disabilities, such as depression, panic disorders and anxiety.
Experts say association boards across the state increasingly want more information from owners who want to have an emotional support animal. Boards ask for qualifications of health professionals who prescribe pets, the length of time the owner has been a patient, how often the owner visits a prescriber and whether medications can replace the pet.
That trend leaves some owners feeling violated. Others head to court, claiming invasion of privacy.
Ellen Moltz, of Sunrise, explained her situation: "After I lost my husband, I had to get a cat to keep my sanity."
Moltz admits moving her pet into a Tamarac condo she owned before asking permission from her association board. Six months ago, she sold that unit and rents in a pet-friendly Sunrise community, something she says she did to avoid the possiblilty of having Moxie evicted. Moxie is a Calico who chases away Moltz' bouts of depression.
"They were cracking down on people with pets. One woman had notes from three doctors and was still rejected," said Moltz. "I don't have to deal with board members invading my privacy."
The challenge for associations is determining which requests for prescriptions pets are valid, said attorney Gary Poliakoff, who patented the phrase prescription pets. "Boards have a right to know whether someone has a condition and how a pet will help."
Some owners are finding it difficult to convince boards they really need a pet.
"Increasingly condos are making owners jump through hoops and provide more personal information that anybody should have to give to their boards," said Maida Genser, founder of Citizens for Pets in Condos, an owners' advocacy group.
Last month, a Pompano Beach woman and three neighbors filed a lawsuit against their condo association for allegedly going too far, asking for verification of her doctor's qualifications and whether medication could be used rather than her dog.
"I was forced to go before a condo committee of neighbors and practically give a deposition about my depression and health," she said. She asked that her name not be used to because of her health conditions.
Like Moltz, the Pompano Beach woman moved in with her pet before asking her board for permission.
"Many people simply do not realize that just having a doctor's note is not enough, and that they are supposed to formally ask for a waiver of the no-pet rule," said Marcy LaHart, an attorney representing the woman.
"Others were simply too embarrassed by the stigma that [they believe] is attached to mental illness."
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