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Pets in the Office

(Updated April 15, 2009)

by Hillary J. Collyer

Hillary Collyer and LadyWith all the recent press about America’s new first dog, Bo Obama, we thought it would be timely to address the issue of pets in the workplace — after all, the White House isn’t just the country’s most famous residence, it’s also a workplace.

According to the U.S. Humane Society, there are approximately 65 million dogs in 39 percent of U.S. households. With such a high number of furry friends in our homes, it’s hardly surprising that taking our dogs to work has become a growing trend. According to a 2006 survey conducted by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA), nearly one in five U.S. companies allows pets at work.

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Benefits of pets in workplace
At a time when there is an increased emphasis on balancing work-life issues, establishing a pet-friendly policy is one way for employers to help employees maintain a healthy work-life balance. Small to medium-sized businesses, particularly technology firms and creative agencies, have been the most receptive to allowing dogs at work. This is due in part to the fact that the fewer employees you have, the easier it is to reach a consensus on an appropriate workplace policy.

Dog-friendly workplace policies can improve staff morale and camaraderie and encourage employees to work longer hours (since they don’t have to rush home to let their dogs out at the end of the day). Also, a company with a dog-friendly policy will be more attractive to a dog lover. The APPMA survey indicated that having pets in the workplace offers a number of benefits, such as creating a more productive work environment, lowering stress and anxiety, improving overall emotional and physical health, decreasing employee absenteeism, and making employees more willing to work overtime. About now would probably be a good time for me to insert a disclaimer that I am somewhat biased in regard to this issue — I’ve been bringing my 11- year-old Lhasa apso to the office for the past several years. (The picture with this article is of us in my office.) Hence, I can personally attest to the decreased stress and anxiety as a result of the presence of my dog in the office.

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Downside of pet-friendly workplaces
There can, of course, be issues with allowing employees to bring their pets to work. The most common complaint against allowing pets in the workplace is allergies. Although this is not an area presently fraught with litigation, employers that adopt pet-friendly policies should be mindful of potential legal actions by employees with allergies.

In one case in Pennsylvania, an employee sued her employer under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), alleging that the employer failed to accommodate her allergies. The employer was an assisted-living facility that housed two dogs and several cats during her employment.

The court dismissed the employee’s claim, concluding that her allergy to cats and dogs didn’t qualify as a disability under the ADA. Relevant to the court’s holding were the facts that there was no evidence that the employee’s physical reaction to the animals was so debilitating that it limited any major life activity and that her use of an inhaler and injections decreased any limitation allergies placed on her breathing.

However, the outcome of the Pennsylvania case might be different now, with Congress’ recent enactment of the ADA Amendments Act. Under the new Act, a person’s use of mitigating measures such as medication is not taken into consideration in determining whether a medical condition is substantially limiting. Thus, the Pennsylvania employee might be disabled under the ADA Amendments Act if without using an inhaler and injections she would have substantial difficulty breathing.

Some employers have sought to accommodate both dog owners and allergic employees by having separate work areas. Others have adopted leash rules that restrict dogs from roaming into the allergic employee’s work area. Also, employers have prohibited dogs from cafeterias, break rooms, restrooms, and conference rooms.

Another potential problem is people who are afraid or uncomfortable around dogs or cats. In a recent case out of New Jersey, a former mail room clerk of Foodarama Supermarkets brought an Americans with Disabilities Act claim in which she alleged that her former supervisor occasionally brought his house cats to his Foodarama office, despite the fact that the employee had previously informed him of her “cat-phobia.”

On occasions when he brought his cats to the office, the supervisor instructed the employee to remain in the mail room to avoid a “feline encounter.” The employee was absent from work for at least a week allegedly because of illness related to her cat-phobia. After being terminated, the employee filed a lawsuit complaining that Foodarama had failed to accommodate her cat-phobia, which she characterized as a “disability,” and terminated her in retaliation for her repeated complaints regarding cats in the workplace.

Because the court determined that the employee’s claim must be dismissed because she had failed to timely file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the court did not reach the question of whether cat-phobia constitutes a cognizable disability under the ADA. However, the court did indicate that it found the employee’s position to be tenuous at best.

In addition to helping alleviate concerns about employees with allergies, implementing a leash rule can also help diminish the concerns of people who are uncomfortable around or afraid of animals.

As indicated, there are not a lot of reported cases dealing with the issue of pets in the workplace. Usually when there is litigation surrounding animals in a workplace, such cases involve the presence of service animals. Employers should be mindful of the important distinction between service animals and pets — service animals enjoy special privileges under the law not afforded pets.

Staying out of the doghouse
Before instituting a pet-friendly workplace, employers should first develop a workplace pet policy that realistically fits its work environment. Relevant considerations include whether pets will be allowed every day or perhaps just one day a week. Another issue is to address how many pets to allow in the office.

Pet-friendly policies vary from company to company, but most include several basic components:

  • accommodating the needs of employees who have allergies or are afraid of animals (e.g., setting aside pet-free areas such as cafeterias, conference rooms, and restrooms);
  • requiring that pets be kept on a leash or restricted to an office, cubicle, or crate;
  • requiring that pets be housebroken; and
  • requiring employees to clean up after their pets — both inside and outside.

Other possible provisions include requiring pets to be properly groomed and treated with a flea preventative.

Only well-behaved pets that are comfortable and reliably safe around strangers should be allowed in the workplace. They shouldn’t show any aggressive traits, such as growling, snarling, or biting, toward people or other animals. Even well-behaved dogs might not like mail or delivery persons, so it’s a good idea to have dogs on a leash or restricted to an office or cubicle. Dogs also should have a water bowl and chew toys to keep them occupied — however, loud squeaky toys or other items that might distract or annoy coworkers should be avoided.

A pet-friendly workplace isn’t appropriate for all employers. If such a policy is well suited for your company, though, this is one minimally costly way to make your employees happy and perhaps more productive. Take a realistic look at your work environment, and if you think a pet-friendly policy is a good fit, implement a policy that keeps the health, safety, and happiness of your employees and their furry friends in mind.

Check out Hillary’s review of a new book by the U.S. Humane Society on creating dog-friendly workplaces

20 thoughts on “Pets in the Office”

  1. My Boss has an agressive dog. He is a pitbull mix. My history with the breed is extensive as my brother is a breeder of Pitbull Purebreds. My issue is that he brings his dog everyday. His dog is agressive to everyone at some point. Not me because I can handle him. I am not around all the time as I do various errands plus lunch through out the day. Today he was out of control with out Staples delivery guy. NO ONE will say anything to our boss because he is our boss and I did mention it to him once and his rebuttal was “I’m the boss and if I want to bring my dog in I will” I use to bring my dog in which is a beagle. Not anymore after his dog tried to nip him. How can I get this remedied if my boss refuses to do anything about it. His dog is very well trained. Does all commands except when he becomes aggressive. PLEASE HELP!

  2. I somewhat agree with you! I was relocated across the country by my employer to work on a government project and my department was once considered to be a division of Human Resources. After I got here, I’ve had to deal with the Supervisor AND Project Manager both bringing their dogs to work. They asked and I was open to it. We were a brand new office and didn’t realize what I was getting myself into. It’s not like I could say no to my boss and manager anyway, who were enthusiastic about it and risk ruining my first impressions with new management. I have to deal with not one, but TWO dogs in the work place and they aren’t small either!! One is extremely hairy and I end up pulling fur out of my mouth sometimes from out of nowhere when I am having a snack or meal at my desk, not to mention they come up and breathe and beg all over my food. The other stinks (hopefully doesn’t have fleas) and is extremely aggressive, but mostly to strangers. Manager claims the dog is legally blind as an excuse to his volatile reaction but he seems to see just fine to me! Over time, once I got used to the dog it wasn’t a big issue for me until I brought my child to the office and he practically tried to bite her foot off while I was carrying her in, as I knew what to expect! He’s even snipped another manager who comes in less frequently and they won’t even report it, but suggested that I do! I am a lowly assistant, so I am not willing to jeopardize my position for a matter that solely isn’t my concern to begin with. I’m sure at some point rumors began to spread, because it hadn’t been “approved” company wide and we have other offices that would complain for not wearing the proper shoe, much less have large beasts roaming around the offices. Me, being an assistant, also makes me the “default dog sitter” if they have to go out to run personal errands. They have blatantly admitted that they are avoiding doggy day care charges and it isn’t fair to me if I can’t bring my 4 year old in everyday and let her sit and color while I work. At least she’s less disruptive! Then they have the audacity to complain if the childcare center provides me with a notice of closure for one day and their fees are like a second rent! To top it all off, when our clients and contractors come by unexpectedly, I have to hold them at the door like an intrudor and ask “Are you afraid of large dogs?” before I let them in our place of business. Most are like “HECK YEA” and then I say, “Well, please wait here for a moment,” while I go confine them. This is ridiculous and absolutely embarrassing to be quite frank. It gives the company an unprofessional image if you ask me. My previous office had so much dignity, but this is a joke. I can’t believe other companies are allowing this without considering everyone’s views as an entire unit, then have the nerve to justify it by saying it reduces their stress. From my perspective, it creates it and as an employee I shouldn’t even be dealing with it because I am here to do my job. Sometimes I go home itching, scratching and I try not to blame them just because I’m practically a germaphobe. Did anyone think to consider that your employees may not be comfortable in a situation that forces them out on a limb to stand up against their superiors for their own health, safety, and piece of mind? I find this idea to be absurd.

  3. Sorry, I must disagree. It seems over the past several years pet owners have been extremely vocal and wrangled pet friendly policies upon hotels, airlines, and now the workplace. Those of us with severe allergies feel that pets in this country have more rights then we do. People with allergies must prove our allergies are life threatening? There is something wrong with that logic. What pet owners fail or refuse to recognize is that allergies frequently cause flu like symptoms. How would you like to have the flu for a couple of weeks because some one wants to bring their pet to the office? It is not a good policy. It puts certain people with allergies and sensitivities at risk. To these people your pet is a walking air pollutant. There is real lack of understanding about allergies in this country.

  4. Our office now has a dog-in-residence. The owner spends time feeding, walking around with the dog talking, playing fetch and taking the dog for walks; thus very little time is spent actually “working”. I have tripped over the dog, had a tennis ball come whizzing by me. The dog is cute and very well behaved but the owner is “out of control”. What can I do?
    annoyed as hell

  5. I am SO sick and tired of everyone having to bow down to pet owners. I have a SEVERE allergy to both dogs and cats. Just sitting on a chair where someone else has been with cat and dog hair on their clothes causes me to break out in hives, my eyes to swell, I can’t breathe well because it causes my asthma to flair up…..but, for heaven’s sake, let’s NOT upset the pet owners!!!!!!

    This is my HEALTH! It is bad enough that I have to keep an epipen with me at all times. And, for the record, it’s NOT just the animal hair that I’m allergic to. It’s also the dander on their skin, which is airborne. So, containing them to their own cube or another part of the building won’t really work or help since it will go into the ventilation system and be spread around for ALL to enjoy!!!!!!

    As Alvin stated above, there is a serious lack of understanding, or caring, about allergies (and asthma as well) in this country. It’s not just something you can take a pill or a puff and fix everything. Keep your pets at home.

  6. I took my car in for service and the” office dog” jumped on me, scratched me and spilled the coffee I was holding. Ruined my handbag, burned my hand and the company lost a client of over 20 years.

  7. My employer brings in 2 dogs 4 days a week. One is 10 weeks old and pees and poops in the office at times. Both dogs live on a ranch, and may have fleas or ticks. How unhealthy can this be? I am also allergic, but no one cares.
    I am the receptionist, so I sit all day where both dogs are.
    what can i do?

  8. I have allergies and I do not appreciate them in the workplace. I am not overly fond of animals, as I had a dog attack me and had to have stitches.

  9. All of the comments here are by miserable people with allergies who are putting all the blame and their woes onto pets and pet owners.

    All of you think that your allergies trump the life bond of a pet owner and their pet. “Just leave your dogs at home” well maybe you work at the wrong place.

    All the anecdotes written here are incredibly trivial incidents where the reaction is way exaggerated and anyone with half a brain would forgive or speak up. I bet none of you actually have said anything you just sit quietly feeling like some victim because you have an allergy that everyone else DOESNT and you think you’re special. The second your special rights of “oh excuse me you forgot I have allergies?” is in check you freak out because you’re no longer the spotlight of special needs in the office. !@#$ you and get over it.

    To the lady who complains that the guy who brought in a dog isn’t working, he probably gets paid more than you and you are just pissed and you’re MAD BECAUSE BAD, hah.

    Take your allergy complaints elsewhere and your incredibad attitudes with. The extent to which you all speak of them should mean you can’t leave your house without breaking out, which is obviously not true, so shove your exaggerations (and horribly unwarranted fears) of pet negativity up your rears.

    It’s YOUR health. Not YOUR company. Crymore.

  10. I put my real name, so please do come look me up. My dog and cat allergies are life threatening. I have arrived DOA at the hospital from asthma and allergies. How about those like me defend our life with pepper spray for your furbabby. ADA provides rights to the disabled. Those rights trump hose imagined by pet owners. We as people are also allowed to take steps to protect our lives. I think pepper spray would be a “reasonable accommodation”, considering that if you are in fear for your life from an animal, killing it is justified. Seriously, be self entitled, and someone will react drastically at some point. Someone with rights and entitlements granted by law, not a self centered view of the world, and how it is here to please YOU. There is a reason laws exist protecting my rights to services, but not an animals.

  11. Perry Fellow:

    your comments are ridiculous. Since when is someone’s ‘bond’ with their pet more important than the health of an employee of the company?

    And I’m sorry but if you as a pet owner can’t bear to be separated from your pet, than maybe YOU are working at the wrong place and quite frankly, need some help because if that is your logic than why haven’t all moms and dads started bringing in their children??

    And what does it matter if the man bringing in his dog makes more money than the girl with the allergy? WTF does that have to do with her having a legitimate allergy?

    Again, your comments are ridiculous and I’m guessing so are you. See a professional if you can’t bear to be separated from your pet.


  12. I am not allergic but I have an issue with a co worker who stops working when she brings her “baby” in on Friday afternoons. Of course the woman has issues as long as her arm but does this mean the other 9 of us can sit and do nothing as well? NO! All you hear is “sit”, ” stop”, “no”, “Mommy loves you”…wtf. Leave it home you crazy narcissist.

  13. I have A very bad fear of animals. Everywhere I go know dogs are being allowed. THIS IS STUPID-THEY ARE NOT PEOPLE. What about the rights of people like me. The states are allowing this because they are making money from these people. Wait til the law suits start when people start getting bit. Keep your pets at home -you go to work to work not to dog sit-this is the stupidest shit yet. Hey I think I”ll bring my friends to work or my kids or maybe I can cook my dinner there. THESE PEOPLE NEED TO GET A LIFE.

  14. I can not say I understand allergies. But, I will say that I sure try. So, please try to understand this, like I try to understand you. I suffer from anxiety, stress, depression, PTSD, and seizures. My dog is my ESA (Emotional Support Animal). She doesn’t exist to make people miserable. She exist to make my life easier. And, make it easier for me to function. She travels with me because I need her with me. She is my support system. I know some people just bring them because they want their pet. That’s not the case with me. Step in my shoes. Try to understand my position. Like I try to understand yours.

  15. Funny people can bitch about their allergies so why not just stay away from someone who’s bringing in a loved one they don’t want to leave behind at home all day. Next you’ll be complaining about the dust at work! I’m allergic to cats, so guess what I do? I stay AWAY from them! How juvenile!

  16. PS… get over your fear of dogs! It’s unfounded & you obviously need professional help! Wow, fear dogs?! You need some therapy.

  17. Guess people have to complain about such an innocent thing as pets at work. Don’t like your job? Then quit. Maybe if you took your medication it wouldn’t be an issue & like I said, stay away from them! If people can complain about their allergies all the time, they need lot learn to deal with the exposure because that can happen anytime, not just work! Wow I guess a person like that can’t walk outside because the big bad dog might make them sneeze!!! I’m allergic to cats… Guess what I do?! I stay away from cats!!! Not rocket science!

  18. It is really an awful time to have a real pet allergy. My god look at the hate. And understand that we are not allergic to the physical animal…we’re allergic to the dander they spread into the air. We didn’t ask to be born this way. I consider my symptoms to be “moderate”… and I’ve been hospitalized for asthma from exposure.

    Ironically this used to be a minor concern… a few awkward holidays with family members with pets. Avoid dogs… no problem.

    The other day a woman sat next to me in a coffee shop with a dog. I politely asked her if she would be staying long… she asked why… I told her I’d have to leave… she graciously offered to sit outdoors. Okay we’re compassionate humans we can be civil and work this out….

    A man with a dog overheard and immediately took her spot. “I don’t believe you have an allergy.”

    I also had a starbucks barista tell me that if I had a dog allergy I should stay home. I had been a regular at her store for over a decade (needless to say not any more!)

    Starbucks I can dump. But most of us need to work.

    It’s awfully tough out there. We get ignorance… to outright hostility. Just read the comments above.

  19. “An innocent thing like pets at work” I believe the term is ableist. There is nothing innocent about a potentially life threatening allergen. And even if not that severe imagine working every day with severe cold/flu symptoms. You won’t die, you’re just miserable. Certainly unable to work effectively. That is what a mild to moderate allergy feels like.

    And just because the medical industry sells treatments doesn’t mean they work that well… or for everyone… even most.

  20. Just because it’s fun/convenient/cheap to bring your dog to work does not mean it belongs there. So can everyone bring a dog? And their cats? How about their kids – many parents worry about leaving their kids in daycare. Just imagine an office with 12 dogs, 5 cats and 15 kids – great atmosphere for work, right?

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