Pets at work: three different scenarios

Since lockdown we have been dealing with more frequent enquiries about pets at work. As we will explain, there are three types of situation where these questions tend to arise.

But let’s start by getting one common misperception out of the way. We generally don’t get asked about animals who have an active role to perform in the workplace - Larry the Downing Street cat for instance. If we were to be pedantic, he’s a working animal (Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office) not a pet. And there are plenty of animals at work with more onerous duties, with any pet-like role being at most a side-hustle.

No, the questions we get asked tend to arise in three main groups:

  • Assistance dogs
  • Emotional support animals
  • Pets at work policies

Dealing with each of these in turn, assistance dogs are probably the most straightforward (like Larry, these are not pets, but since they work with one specific person the dividing line is less clear). These are animals trained to support a worker with specific health needs – sight impairment being the best known example (a full definition is included in the Equality Act 2010).

If a disabled worker or job applicant asks to bring an assistance dog into work the duty to make reasonable adjustments will be engaged. In effect that means that an employer would not be able to refuse such a request without very good reasons. Indeed, as the Equality and Human Rights Commission's Code of Practice makes clear, they would be expected to make any other associated adjustments, such as providing training for colleagues about how to interact with the dog if this was reasonably required.

The second category concerns workers who have a pet that does not qualify as an assistance dog, but argue that it still benefits them medically or emotionally if they can bring it into the workplace. In that scenario, an employer normally has more room for manoeuvre. The worker will not necessarily be disabled, and typically the evidence of the health benefits of such animals is less clear cut. That said, these requests will still need to be approached with an open mind, but the physical constraints of the workplace, the demands of their job and the needs of other workers would be given more weight.

The third scenario is probably less common, but is gaining traction since the end of the COVID lock-down. That involves employers who wish to encourage a wider range staff to bring their pets into work – either to create a more conducive workplace environment or to promote their brand, or both. We aware of one employer who has gone as far as granting special leave to support workers settling in a new puppy!

Introducing a pets at work policy involves practical and logistical considerations beyond the reach of traditional employment law. But nonetheless, there are employment implications to consider when introducing such a policy, particularly around fairness and consistency. There is also the position of staff who don’t feel comfortable around pets to consider, whether this is for health, religious, philosophical or other reasons.

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Every piece of content we create is correct on the date it’s published but please don’t rely on it as legal advice. If you’d like to speak to us about your own legal requirements, please contact one of our expert lawyers.

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