Should Employers Allow Pets at Work?

Various Legal and Employee Friendly Workplace Issues Exist

Portrait of curious dog lying on rug in an office
••• Seth K. Hughes / Getty Images

Reader Question:

We are a privately owned company. Our owner brings her dog to work with her every day. The dog roams the office and lays in the hallway, etc. We have a new employee who has been here about one month. She knew about the dog when we hired her.

Well, last week, she went to the doctor due to some health issues - such as running, stuffy nose, eyes watering, congestion, and so forth, The doctor ran tests and she is allergic to dogs. The owner said she does not care, the dog is staying. What do you advise as I have never been in this situation before?

Suzanne’s Response:

Well, the exact wrong answer when someone complains about an allergy, a disability or anything health related is to say, “I don't care.” That's because the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires you to provide reasonable accommodations for all disabilities. If you flat out say, “I don't care,” you've pretty much lost the lawsuit that ensues.

That said, pet allergies aren't guaranteed ADA protection. It needs to be a pretty severe allergy in order to qualify as a disability. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation weighs in.

In both the ADA and Section 504, a person with a disability is described as someone who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, or is regarded as having such impairments. Breathing, eating, working and going to school are "major life activities." Asthma and allergies are still considered disabilities under the ADA, even if symptoms are controlled by medication.

Does a runny nose or itchy eyes count as a major life impairment? Probably not. But, is it still unpleasant? Absolutely. Would it make coming into work a miserable experience? Absolutely, especially if the dog is wandering around and takes a liking to the poor allergy sufferer.

In reality, service dogs are considered a reasonable accommodation for other disabilities and the official position of the US Department of Justice is that if there is someone in the office who requires a service dog and someone in the office who suffers from allergies, they should just be separated — assigned space in opposite corners, for instance.

That's the simplest solution and what I would recommend. The allergy sufferer should be given an area that the dog isn't allowed to visit. An office with a door that closes, for instance, or the dog should be given a limited area to run around.

Yes, the owner probably feels like, “my company, my dog, my rules!” but this isn't something worth fighting. (And since the employee had to go to the doctor to get diagnosed, she probably didn't know she was allergic beforehand.)

Should Organizations Allow Pets at Work?

But, presumably, this is just a pet, not a service animal. Should pets be allowed in the office?

Some people love this idea and the science seems to back them up. Dogs can actually lower stress levels in the office. Of course, that presumes that no one in the office hates dogs and that the dogs are well trained.

You don't want to have a situation where the dog is barking at inopportune moments, peeing on the floor or doing any number of other doggy behaviors.

When you don't have to leave your pet at home, alone, all the time, your pet and you can be happier. It sounds like it could be awesome. However, if you're going to allow dogs (or other animals) in the office, make sure you double check with your insurance carrier to make sure you're covered in the event that the dog freaks out and bites someone, or someone trips over her.

It may seem silly, especially for an older dog who has always been calm and gentle. But, if the boss's dog takes a bite out of an employee or customer, you can bet that the business will be paying out.

Dog lovers should also be sensitive to the non-dog lovers in the office. In this specific case, the new employee was aware that the dog would be there, but sometimes that doesn't come up in the interview (although it should) or the boss gets a new pet and just can't bear to leave it at home.

Not everyone loves dogs, and even if there are no allergy issues, employees should be able to have a dog free space to do their work.

Solving More Employee Problems in the Workplace