Can You Refuse To Allow Pit Bulls in Your Rental Units?
Suppose you’re a landlord with a potential tenant who has a pit bull, and you have safety concerns based on the dog’s breed. Can you ban pit bulls or other large dog breeds from your rentals? And even if it’s legal, should you limit what types of dogs people can bring into the apartment?
According to data from BostonPads presented to members in early 2022, only about 10% of Boston apartments allow pets. That’s not many, considering nearly 70% of Americans own some kind of companion animal. Pet-friendly apartments are sought after and in short supply, so welcoming animals can really set your rental apart from the rest.
Now, suppose you’re willing to welcome cats, dogs and small pets into your rental units. You know the rules about pet rent and not charging a special deposit for pets, and you’re enjoying vetting a bunch of excited, pet-owning applicants. What do you do when a tenant has a dog you’re worried could be dangerous?
Pit bulls, also known as American pit bull terriers or pit bull terriers, often get a bad rap for being aggressive, dangerous dogs, to the point that some cities and towns tried to outlaw their presence entirely, or charged owners premiums to own a pit bull. Massachusetts outlawed banning dogs based on breed in 2012, instead focusing on MGL Chapter 140, Section 157, also known as the “dangerous dog law.”
This law requires municipalities to treat dogs on a case-by-case basis. The pit bull that never so much as opens its eyes when the kids run by gets to stay; the poodle that tried to take a chunk out of Timmy’s leg gets more restrictions. It’s a system designed to reward responsible pet owners and keep communities safe, at least in theory.
But even though your city cannot ban certain dog breeds, what you do in your own home is up to you. The question comes down to whether you want to restrict your tenants, and if it makes sense to do so.
Landlords May Be Responsible for a Dog’s Bad Behavior
Something to consider when determining your pet policies is what you will do if one of your tenants’ dogs bites or otherwise injures someone on your property.
According to the state’s dangerous dog law referenced above, the owner of the dog is held responsible for damages caused by their animal, as long as the injured party was not trespassing or somehow harming or taunting the dog at the time of the incident. If the dog injures a child under 7 years old, they are presumed innocent unless the defendant (the dog’s owner) can prove the child was trespassing or inciting the dog to violence.
But that doesn’t let you, the landlord, off the hook. In the 2009 case of Nutt v. Florio, an appeals court determined the landlord had acted negligently when their tenant’s dog, a pit bull named Tiny, attacked 10-year-old Killian Nutt. The attack in question happened in 2006 and was reportedly unprovoked. At the time of the attack, Tiny “was unlicensed, was not vaccinated for rabies, and was unrestrained, in violation of municipal leash law.”
Nutt, who was named as the plaintiff in the case, sued both Tiny’s owner, Michael Keane, and Keane’s landlords, Emil and Clara Florio. Nutt claimed the landlords knew Tiny was dangerous based on previous reports of aggressive behavior from the dog. Another tenant had also reported aggressive behavior from a pit bull that Keane owned. That tenant alleged the pit bull was not Tiny, but the courts could not find evidence that Keane had owned more than one pit bull.
Florio stated he did not allow dogs in the rental and had asked Keane to remove dogs from the property before.
The Superior Court ruled that the landlords had not acted negligently. That determination was appealed and overturned by the Appeals Court, which ruled that the landlords had sufficient knowledge that Tiny was dangerous.
In coming to that conclusion, the Appeals Court stated that the dog’s breed should be considered when determining whether the landlords had acted negligently, as pit bulls are known to be aggressive. The breed alone was not enough to determine if the dog was dangerous, but coupled with other reports, it was relevant. The case was sent back to Superior Court for trial. Court records show the case was settled in 2010 and then dismissed before a trial could commence.
We don’t know the details of the settlement, but a four-year legal battle was almost certainly expensive for the Florios. If you are going to allow dogs on your property, make sure you are following up on any reports of negative behavior and addressing them accordingly. If you do not allow dogs (besides service and assistance animals), be vigilant about holding your tenants to that rule.
Banning Just One Breed Doesn’t Makes Sense
You may have a justified distrust of pit bulls, even though logically, there are good and bad dogs in every breed. Banning just one breed doesn’t make much sense, especially since plenty of dogs that get a bad reputation for fighting or destruction aren’t classified as pit bulls (Dobermans and German shepherds, for example).
Unless you’re prepared to list every single breed you won’t allow, and specify what percentage of that breed still counts (“he’s half Yorkie, one quarter poodle, an eighth schnauzer and two-sixteenths pit bull”), you’re setting yourself up for a headache. That said, the size of a dog may be something you want to consider when you write your pet policies.
Most people think of weight limits when they think of size restrictions, but that’s harder to check unless you ask for current vet records or want your tenant to step on a scale, then pick up their dog and subtract the difference. Also, a small, compact dog could weigh just as much as a larger dog with a lighter frame. If you want to restrict based on size, doing so based on height at the shoulder might be a more consistent, and easier, metric to use.
A small dog like a cocker spaniel or a Chihuahua may be just as likely to bite someone as a pit bull or Rottweiler, but the difference in damage between bites is going to be significant. The jaw strength of a small breed pales in comparison to larger dogs, and therefore, so does the extent of injury that could come from a bite. Of course, training and ownership practices also influence animal behavior, and the setup of your rental may also inform whether you want to restrict dogs to smaller breeds. A fourplex with tons of little kids in multiple units is a bigger potential risk than a single-family home with a fenced yard if your tenant has a reactive dog.
Speaking of homes, any dog may do damage to an apartment. We spoke to a woman named Katie who said her pug puppy, Frank, managed to chew up an entire loveseat. The damage was extensive, to the point that “it looked like the couch exploded” and the furniture had to be replaced. This was from a dog that couldn’t have weighed more than a few pounds at the time.
It sounds like a funny story, but remember, bigger dogs have bigger potential for wreaking havoc. This may be something you’re concerned about, or perhaps you trust that the tenant’s security deposit will take care of any damages Fido may cause. And you can always sue for damages that exceed the amount of the security deposit. It comes down to whether you want to take the risk and are okay with potentially spending more time repairing the unit between tenants.
Can I Say No to a Pit Bull That Is a Service or Support Animal?
If your tenant has a pit bull that is a service or support animal, you cannot ban them from having that dog just on the merits of its breed. Having a policy that says “no pit bulls ever” is going to be considered discriminatory if you try to apply it to an emotional support animal.
The accommodation your tenant requests must be reasonable. That means you can require that the dog be vaccinated and licensed according to state or local laws. You can also require that the tenant must clean up after their dog as soon as it uses the bathroom. Even normal use of a private lawn that is not common space for other tenants requires clean-up after an animal.
Remember, even though service and support animals are protected by federal law, they are still expected to behave appropriately. If your tenant’s service or assistance animal causes damage beyond reasonable wear and tear, you can hold your tenant responsible for that. If your renter’s service or assistance animal acts aggressively, you can also require that animal to be removed (but check with an attorney to make sure you handle this appropriately).
It’s up to you whether or not you want to allow pets on your property, and what restrictions you are going to place on your tenants regarding the types of animals they can have. Certainly, allowing pets is going to make your rental more attractive to a larger market, and you may be able to charge more rent for the privilege. But allowing dogs of any size comes with more responsibility on your part. Make sure your tenants are not violating any of your municipal laws in the way they care for their dog, and take any reports of aggressive behavior seriously.
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