From seeing-eye dogs, occupational therapy animals, and military operations dogs to beloved and trusted domestic companions, pets wear many hats in our lives.
Study after study has proven how pets have a calming effect on our bodies and minds, how they help children with A.D.D. focus better, how they reduce blood pressure and lower stress, how pets at the workplace make employees more creative, productive, and cordial to each other, and how they’re such awesome additions to our lives overall.
So it would seem that if we spend the best parts of our waking hours at work, there’s no better way to carry forward these wonderful benefits that pets bring into our work lives too, right? Well, unfortunately there are no simple answers here.
While there is a growing wave of companies led by the usual suspects—Google, Zynga, Ben & Jerry’s, and others—that allow employees to take their pets along to the workplace, there’s also a growing debate about the practicality of the whole idea. And these voices of concern are not just coming from the minority of pet-haters or pet-neutral folks around. Even pet owners have reservations about bringing their beloved pooch to the office with them on a daily basis. Here’s why:
Yes, pets help lower blood pressure. It’s true that they help reduce work-related stress among pet owners. It’s even true that pet owners enjoy a wee bit of extra exercise thanks to their four legged friends. However, this is all from the perspective of pet owners or animal lovers.
Spare a thought for the millions of your fellow Americans who suffer from pet related allergies. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America pegs the figure of Americans with one form of pet allergy or another at 15% to 30% of the total population. Some of these allergies are so severe that they cause rashes, temporary breathlessness, panic attacks, and even severe respiratory disorders.
In addition to a physical reaction to the presence of pets around them, you could have coworkers who are genuinely scared of animals and feel stressed out around them. For such individuals a pet in their workplace is not a calming presence, but rather a constant threat to their wellbeing and safety.
A pet that has free reign of a workplace can be a source of entertainment for the most part. But at the end of the day, every pet is an animal that cannot truly be held accountable for its actions.
An unforeseen situation that makes even the most docile pet feel threatened may cause it to attack and injure someone at the workplace—a perfect recipe for personal injury and a big fat lawsuit. You might argue that workplaces that allow pets must have a round the clock on-leash policy, but we all know that this is one of those rules that we all love to break.
Many industries by their very nature are not conducive to having pets sauntering around. Medical facilities, pharmaceutical companies, chemical laboratories, and food businesses are all sectors where a pet can be a serious threat to the quality of the final product or service. In such environments, pets pose a genuine contamination hazard and are best kept out, no questions asked.
In some cases, it’s in your pet’s best interest to chill out at home and skip the trip to the workplace. Industries like construction, mining, refineries, and more can be dangerous for your pet’s health and well-being. You wouldn’t want to put your pet at risk just so you can be happy at work, would you?
The increasingly litigation-friendly age that we live in should be deterrent enough to employers that are considering opening their doors to pets. While the law requires employers to allow service dogs for employees with a proven disability, opening the floodgates for everybody may be an invitation for a legal nightmare.
Even in the case of service animals, the law only allows well-trained, housebroken, and even-tempered pets to accompany their owners to places of work, thus preventing a potentially threatening environment for coworkers of people with disabilities.
As an employer you need to be aware of the omnipresent threat of a lawsuit from an employee who suffers from a pet allergy and is forced to share working quarters with an animal that aggravates their symptoms. According to latest amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, an animal allergy can be considered a legitimate disability. Not considering the health condition of a pet-allergy sufferer by allowing pets at the workplace can amount to discrimination against the disabled.
Besides lawsuits due to personal injuries caused by pets owned by one of your employees, there’s yet another form of lawsuit to worry about. If your retail establishment allows patrons to bring their dogs onto the premises, customers can sue you for vicarious liability due to injuries caused by pets of other patrons!
Another aspect to consider is the response from your landlord to pets on the premises. The vast majority of leases for corporate premises explicitly disallow pets on location. Letting employees bring their pets along would be a breach of your rental agreement and could even lead to an eviction from the premises altogether.
Bringing your pet to work is not like bringing your personal iPad to work. Your pet will need to be fed, watered, walked, and even played with on a regular basis throughout the entire workday. Time that you could have spent bonding with team mates, putting together that report for your customer-from-hell, or thinking up a new idea for your latest ad campaign will be spent taking Buster for walks and cleaning up his poop in the middle of your workday.
Shreyans Parekh, Director of Marketing & Business Development at Koyal Wholesale—the world’s largest wedding and event-supplies company—conducted a workplace experiment with pets and found it did nothing to support the oft-cited creative and productive gains that pet-friendly workplaces are supposed to enjoy.
In Parekh’s words, “We ran an experiment allowing dogs at work to lower stress levels and increase productivity. After four months, we eliminated it. Productivity, quarterly numbers, and error rates did not improve with the pets being present—in fact, [they] dropped during some weeks.”
As any pet owner will tell you, owning their bundle of joy is not cheap. From $1570 for a large dog to $575 for a parakeet per year, pet ownership comes at an ever-increasing price tag. When you turn your office into a pet friendly zone, you are in turn taking on some of the expenses of owning a pet upon yourself. Be prepared to stock your workplace with at least basic pet supplies like snacks, water bowls, kitty litter, and chew toys.
If you think your costs end there (or are tangible), you are mistaken. Pets at the workplace also bring with them a built-in deterrent for employees seeking career opportunities at your organization. With the market for talented and qualified workers already so scarce, adding an extra filter to your recruitment process may not be the smartest idea from a competitive perspective.
Admittedly, we are a pet crazy nation. We even have a designated holiday dedicated to our pets—the Take Your Dog to Work Day—celebrated in the month of June every year.
While the benefits that pets bring with them are numerous and the pro-pet lobby gets louder with every passing day, organizations need to also give credence to the real issues that four-legged and feathered guests at work bring along with them.
Whether it’s your “pet project” or your “pet peeve,” whichever way you decide to swing, make sure you put down in black and white what your stand is on the furry question to make sure your organization doesn’t get into bigger trouble later. As a bonus, here’s a sample pet policy that you could refer to for your workplace.
—Rohan Ayyar is a startup-focused marketer involved in creative content strategy, web analytics and conversion optimization at E2M, a premium digital marketing firm. He is also an avid writer, with posts featured on Entrepreneur, Social Media Today, and Business Insider, among other places. Follow him on Twitter @searchrook.