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Did you know that well over half of U.S. households (66%) own a pet? But, according to the Humane Society of the United States, problems finding and keeping rental housing is a leading reason that dogs and cats end up in shelters. Building a pet policy for renters is an important decision for property management companies. 

Promoting a pet-friendly listing can be a fantastic way to fill units more quickly – and retain good residents over time. Pet owners are less likely to leave a good pet-friendly home. 

So, how can you build pet-friendly policies that create a welcoming space for pet owners but protect your business and your property investor’s assets?

We sat down with an expert on the topic: Victoria Cowart from PetScreening. We asked her about the key components of an effective pet policy, how to dial in on protective restrictions, how to structure a lease agreement, and more. 

Read on to learn with us about best practices when building a pet policy for renters. 

Meet the Expert: Victoria Cowart, CPM, NAAEI Faculty, PetScreening’s Director of Education and Outreach

With an early start as a leasing agent, Victoria Cowart built her career in the industry managing apartment communities and a diverse portfolio. Thanks to her years of management experience, Cowart is now a property management instructor and graduate of both the NAAEI Advance Facilitator Training and the NAA Lyceum Program. She has served in the NAA as President of local and state affiliates, the Regional VP for Region IV, and chaired four committees. She joined PetScreening over two years ago and says she has found her “joy zone” there, focused on education, legislation, and sales. 

Standard pet policy and rules 

We started by asking Cowart to talk about the key components of an effective pet policy. Her rule #1? Consistency.

“The best policies are the ones consistently applied,” Cowart says.

When building a pet policy, property managers need to be decisive and apply the rules fairly and consistently – and in compliance with the law – with every unit. 

With that in mind, a pet policy should have standard rules and statements, including:

  • Pet Restrictions: Any breed or other restrictions
  • Pet Requirements: Licenses, vaccinations, leashing, etc.
  • Pet Charges: How to charge for pets in a fair way
  • Tenant Responsibilities: What is the resident responsible for?
  • Pet Agreement: How to get it all written down and stay compliant

Cowart warns not to make easy assumptions about each of these pet policy components. To build a pet-friendly, safe environment, you need to carefully asses what risk means to you, to your investors, and to your residents. 

“Of course, there’s risk bringing pets into your rentals,” Cowart says. “Bites, property damage, etc. But many companies want to add arbitrary rules thinking it will dial back their risk. For example, breed and weight restrictions, if you’re relying only on that, are very arbitrary without context. If you do want to include breed or weight restrictions, rely on that in combination with other factors. Alone it is insufficient. In combination with other data points and information, it does have relevance.”

So, let’s dig a little deeper into each of the key steps in building a strong and resident-friendly pet policy. 

Components of an effective pet policy for residents 

A Forbes study found that 85% of dog owners and 76% of cat owners consider their pets to be part of the family. Animals contribute to mental, emotional, and physical health and can be one of the best parts of life. 

But, of course, pets also introduce risk. A new kitten can do some serious damage to a home, or a frightened dog off-leash could potentially bite a neighbor. 

That’s where your pet policy comes in. An effective pet policy can support residents with furry family members, minimize your exposure to risk, boost your ancillary income, protect your investors’ assets, and even help increase your occupancy rate. 

Cowart helped us break down the individual components of an effective pet policy for renters. 

Pet Restrictions 

The first thing you need to do is consider and document any restrictions around pets allowed on your properties. This includes considering a no pet policy. Cowart strongly opposes a no pet policy for a multitude of reasons, many of which we’ve discussed here. 

But let’s say you are going to allow some pets. You can start with what types of animals you’ll allow. Most property managers will stick to the typical domesticated animals like dogs, cats, birds, hamsters, fish, etc. 

State or federal laws will prohibit certain animals – obvious ones like leopards or tigers and perhaps less obvious ones like ferrets, hedgehogs, monkeys, or even turtles in some states. 

Breed and weight restrictions

Many property management companies also impose breed restrictions and weight restrictions for pet dogs, as Cowart mentioned. But Cowart encourages PMCs to consider that, without more context, those restrictions aren’t sufficient – they may disqualify perfectly safe dogs with good residents and may not protect you from unusually aggressive or problem animals that fit within your weight and breed limits. 

In fact, a 2022 study published in the journal Science found that breed only accounts for 9% of the variation in dog behavior. The rest is determined by factors such as environment, owner behavior, training, socialization, and more. 

Behavior restrictions 

Cowart recommends basing restrictions on a much more holistic view of each individual pet. At PetScreening, they use a proprietary scoring system called the FIDO Score that uses over 35 distinct data points to evaluate the risk any type of animal or pet poses for a home. The scoring system involves 23 questions and then runs it through an algorithm to score a dog from 1 (the lowest) to 5 (the highest). 

These scores are based on the animal’s unique profile. Then, you can make decisions based on the unique animal’s profile. 

Cowart says, “No company should welcome a one- or two-paw FIDO-rated pet into their community without thoroughly analyzing the pet profile as to why they scored this. I personally recommend to clients that if an animal has ever bitten a person, they should not welcome that pet into a rental. Should they bite someone again, it could be said you knew or should have known they posed a risk.”

Pet Requirements

The next part of your policy should include what is required for any pets on your property. This might include a certain level of FIDO score or similar rating. That’s up to individual property management companies. 

They should definitely include requirements such as:

  • Proof of up-to-date vaccinations
  • Requirements to wear collars with ID tags
  • Municipal license receipt
  • Number of pets
  • Types of pets
  • Etc. 

It’s important to be familiar with any requirements mandated by your state or local laws, as well. 

Pet Insurance

Nine out of 10 professional property managers require residents to carry insurance on the lease, but only 41% of residents maintain compliant coverage. 

Insurance is key to protecting your residents and your properties in the event of an issue. Dog bite insurance losses alone cost $882 million in the US in 2021. According to the CDC, over 4.5 million Americans are bitten each year by dogs. 800,000 of them require medical attention, and over 1,000 per day require emergency care. 

And yet, many insurers don’t cover certain breeds, like pit bulls or Rottweilers, despite the fact that breed plays little role in behavior, as we’ve discussed. 

To take matters into their own hands, many property management companies are turning to a Resident Benefits Package that includes a renter’s insurance program. At Second Nature, our renter’s insurance program has 100% compliance – and we cover all dog breeds with no exceptions.

Pet Fees

Allowing pets at your properties is also a great way to drive ancillary income. Deposit fees or monthly fees – called pet rent – can help hedge your risk and protect you, the resident, and your investor. So, what’s the best way to set up your pet fees?

“Number one, know the laws in your area,” Cowart says. “Municipalities and states have certain regulations. For example, one state recently passed a law where their pet rents could not exceed $35 a month, and the pet deposit was limited to $300. One or two states may have rules like that, so the first thing is always to know the laws where you are conducting business.”

Once you’ve got your local ordinances straight, Cowart says she is an advocate of installing a pet entry fee and a monthly pet rent fee vs. charging a pet deposit. This protects you in case of needed evictions or other unfortunate circumstances.

“You don’t want to be constrained to having a pet deposit only applicable to pet damage on the property,” Cowart says. “Meanwhile, this person is evicted and owes you thousands of dollars of rent, and you have to give back the pet deposit if it’s not pet-specific damage.”

Instead, Cowart says, include the “pet deposit” in your regular security deposit. “I would suggest if you want a pet deposit, just increase your base deposit and don’t call it a pet deposit. You don’t want to be out money just because you've delineated the deposit for a particular use.”

Tenant Responsibilities 

Cowart says that at PetScreening, they ask 23 questions across several categories. For example, three of the questions are on bite history alone. But the main breakdown of these questions is to sort out liability and responsibility. 

Liability has to do with what we’ve covered above – bite history, risk, etc. Responsibility has to do with, according to Cowart, “how your potential resident, as a pet owner, is going to ensure that their pet doesn’t have an adverse impact on the rental property or the community.  

Cowart recommends asking questions like:

  • Will they pick up after their animal?
  • Will they walk the animal on a leash?
  • Do they take the animal for routine veterinary care? 
  • Is it up to date on its vaccinations?

Your pet policy should clearly define and outline the responsibilities on the part of the resident. 

Cowart says, “Identify core responsibilities that you expect from the owners: keeping them under control, leashing, never outside unattended, basic vaccinations up to date, etc.”

“Most often, the problems aren’t with the animals, they’re with the owners,” Cowart says. “If you have a Belgian Malinois, and you think you just have a skinny German Shepard, you are wrong. If they’re some sort of herding animal and they’re used to having a whole communal group that they’re nipping the heels of, but now they’re in an apartment. Now they don’t have that job, and they’re feeling unemployed, and so they’re going to find a job.”

In short, pet owners need to be responsible for ensuring their animal’s behavior is safe. 

Pet Agreement or Pet Addendum 

You should absolutely incorporate a pet agreement in your lease. You want to put all of this work we’ve discussed in writing. Include all the fees, restrictions, violation penalties, etc. The pet section of your lease should be included in all leases because anyone could become a pet owner at any time.

When it comes to a pet agreement, Cowart’s strongest advice is to follow the best practices of your local property management association, apartment association, etc. 

“Make sure you’re educated on the laws in your area,” Cowart says. “Associations involved in property management in your area – NAA, NARPM, AHMA – can help educate you on what you need to know.”

The biggest area of risk and confusion for the lease agreement is assistance animals. Let’s take a whole section to examine assistance animals. 

What about assistance animals?

The restrictions we’ve discussed above, and charges, etc. – most do not apply when it comes to assistance animals. Fair housing laws apply strictly to assistance animals.

Cowart’s most important piece of advice? “First and foremost, understand what Assistance Animals are because that’s the biggest area of confusion for property managers. What you can or can’t do, what you can charge owners, and what you require they do before you admit them to the community. There is a massive difference, by law.”

There are two types of assistance animals: service animals and support animals. Service animals and support animals or emotional support animals are handled totally differently under the Fair Housing Act. An assistance animal is NOT classified as a pet.

Cowart emphasizes that you should never have an assistance animal owner sign off on anything with the word “pet” in it because it’s not a pet, it’s a disability device. 

“I facilitate a 45-minute session on this alone,” Cowart says. “Property managers should look at the FHEO-2020-01 Assistance Animal’s notice for additional information on HUD’s guidance.”

Tools to help manage your pet policy

It can be daunting to take on the challenge of simultaneously managing risk and creating a welcoming environment for residents with pets. But with the right approach – and the right tools – property managers are creating pet-friendly rental policies that protect both their business and their investor’s assets. 

PetScreening.com, where Victoria Cowart is a leading educator, provides a holistic approach to preparing your properties for pets. Their proprietary FIDO scoring helps take the guesswork out of assessing risk and revenue. 

And here at Second Nature, we provide a fully managed Resident Benefits Package that provides services your residents want and need without adding a burden to your team. We focus on creating an experience so good that residents never want to leave. 

Our RBP includes one of the country’s most robust pet policies in our Renter’s Insurance Program. The policy is friendly to all breeds and supports responsible residents who want to find a warm home for their furry family members. At the same time, the insurance ensures that you and your investor are covered in case of any risk event.

Have thoughts or questions about building a pet-friendly, risk-intelligent pet policy? Share them in our Triple Win Community

Andrew Smallwood

Andrew Smallwood

Chief Customer Officer - Second Nature