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An animal is for life, but can you take them to work?

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Here we look at whether employers should allow animals into the workplace – the laws you need to know about and the best or most fun practices.

There are several types of animals that could be in the workplace.

1. Assistance Animals.

The most obvious example is a guide dog for a member of staff who is visually impaired – in this instance an employer would be required to allow the guide dog to work (unless there are exceptional circumstances – see below) as the dog is a ‘reasonable adjustment’ for a disabled member of staff, under the Equality Act 2010.

A guide dog is an ‘Assistance animal’.  Assistance animals help people with a wide range of health conditions besides visual impairment, like epilepsy, hearing difficulties, autism, and diabetes.  Assistance animals are trained to do work or perform tasks that help a disabled person live an independent life - such as taking washing out of the washing machine; opening and closing doors; checking sugar level fluctuations in people with diabetes; detecting epileptic seizures; alerting deaf people to the sounds of an alarm, door-bell, or telephone.  More details can be found in an article about ‘Assistance Dogs, how to spot them’ by the BBC. Assistance Dogs UK is a charity that oversees seven accredited assistance dog charities, who have provided over 7,000 people with a highly trained assistance dog in the UK.  They have an ‘Assistance dogs in the Workplace’ guide which gives further details on assistance dogs and information for service providers. 

2. Emotional Support Animals 

There are also ‘Emotional Support Animals’ (ESA’s) which are not yet formally classified as ‘assistance’ animals, but who help people with mental health issues to better manage their conditions. ESA’s are not trained to aid their owners practically, their main function is to support their owner through companionship and affection. The use of ESA’s by individuals in the UK is increasing.  

The charity Emotional Support Animals UK raises awareness of the help ESA’s give to people and are trying to get ESA’s classified as certified ‘assistance animals’

3. General Pets

Since the various lockdowns of the Covid pandemic, pet ownership in the UK has increased, as many people work at home and spend more time with their pet.  With people returning to the workplace (full or part-time), staff may be more likely to ask their employer if they can bring their pet to work, as they don’t want the animal to spend all day on its own.  

According to research by UK PET Food, pet ownership has increased by an estimated 3.2 million households since the pandemic, making the estimated total of households in the UK with a pet to be 62%.

Should you allow general pets in the workplace?

Generally speaking, employers don’t have to let staff bring their pets to work (with the obvious exception of a disabled member of staff who has an assistance animal – see below).

Some employers are happy to allow pets into the workplace. They may be a morale boost for staff, leading to improved wellbeing and productivity and they may also be a recruitment/retention tool with the company viewed as progressive and forward thinking.

First though, it’s important to distinguish between allowing employees to bring their pets to work, and the legal obligations that employers have regarding disabled employees who rely on an assistance animal (see below). 

However, if you want to allow pets in the workplace you’llneed to set rules and boundaries for the pet and their owner:

  • Consider how having multiple pets in the workplace will work, and how it will impact on any assistance dogs and their handler already in the workplace.
  • Have clear expectations about a pet’s behaviour in the workplace (biting and aggression, destroying property, fouling, obviously any bad behaviour), and be clear who is responsible for any damage caused by the pet and who has overall responsibility for the behaviour of the pet while they are at work.
  • You’ll need to consider what types of animals you allow into your workplace.  
  • You may want to set a general rule that you can allow pets to be brought to work on one day a week or one day a month.
  • Employers will also need to consider if there are any colleague(s) who are allergic or scared of the animal, or potentially stressed out by them or hate their smell, noise or cleanliness issues.
  • However, the incidence of allergies to dogs may be less than perhaps commonly thought; In the UK it is estimated that only 8% of adults are sensitive to dog allergens.  Where a clear allergy risk to a specific individual is identified by an employer, steps should be taken to reduce this risk, but a refusal of access for assistance dogs based on the possibility that other people ‘may’ be allergic is unlikely to be classed as a reasonable response to a request for an employee to bring an assistance dog to work. Similarly, refusing access to an assistance dog user in the workplace due to fear of dogs amongst other employees is unlikely to be considered a reasonable response.
  • There may also be business insurance issues that you need to consider.
  • Employers also need to keep in mind the Health and Safety at Work Act which requires them to ensure the safety, health, and welfare of all its staff and others affected by its business.

In the UK, Google, Amazon, Ben & Jerry’s, Etsy, and Nestlé and many other large companies, as well as a host of smaller (especially Tech start-up) companies allow employees to bring pets to the workplace.  Read all the details about Nestlé’s three-step “pawthorisation” process to judge if a pet dog will be allowed in the workplace.

Purina, owned by Nestle´, the pet food brand behind Felix, Gourmet, Bonio, and Winalot, has information about how to set up a Pets at Work scheme.

So, what is the law on having ‘Assisted Animals’ in the workplace?

Where a worker is disabled (under the Equality Act 2010) an employer will need to make a ‘reasonable adjustment’ if the adjustment helps the member of staff overcome any disadvantages they face at work.  A fully trained ‘assistance’ animal is likely to be a ‘reasonable adjustment’ but an ESA not necessarily (as things stand at the moment).

Other reasonable adjustments in relation to an assistance animal (besides allowing them into the workplace, you may need to go further to fully alleviate any disadvantages) can include: 

  • Making space for the dog and its bed, potentially moving a workstation to a quieter part of the office/space. 
  • Providing or allocating an outside space or ‘spending area’ where the dog can relieve itself (if outside space is available). 
  • Making changes to working hours to accommodate short breaks to allow the dog to have a comfort break (rather than expect the member of staff to use their own breaks to provide assistance to their animal).

What should employers do if a member of staff asks to bring in their pet (and you don’t already have a general ‘bring your pets to work policy’)?

  • First, ask why they would like to bring their pet to work, are there health reasons? Blind or deaf staff will have an obvious need, but other health conditions may not be so obvious.
  • If necessary (if it’s not obvious or you are concerned about the request) obtain medical evidence from their GP or an Occupational Health advisor, which should explain the disadvantages that the employee is facing at work and how an animal can help them overcome these disadvantages (whether an assistance animal or an ESA).
  • If the medical evidence agrees that the animal’s presence will help a member of staff get over their particular disadvantage at work, then employers will need to do a Health and Safety Risk assessment about the animal and the workplace, and assess how well the animal is trained and behaves.  Some workplaces will not be appropriate for many animals – i.e. a commercial kitchen, where there are vehicles or machinery.  You also need to consider colleagues and the impact the animal will have on them (see above) and on the functionality of the business.  Also consider if there will be a cost to the employer having the animal in the workplace.
  • The ‘Assistance dogs in the Workplace’ guide contains information about what you can expect from an assistance dog in the workplace and gives case study examples, as well as providing a sample risk assessment document. 
  • If necessary, you can allow the animal to come into the workplace for a trial period to assess if their presence is appropriate.

Other obligations for business (beyond staff members)

In May 2022 a shopper (Ian Fenn) launched a claim of discrimination against a London branch of Sainsbury’s after they refused to allow the shopper’s assistance cat into the shop with him. The shopper relied on his trained cat for support in his daily life as he suffered from episodes of sensory overload that were triggered by busy environments.  Sainsburys told him they would only allow assistance dogs into their shops.  Various hospitals, shops, and hotel chains had allowed Fenn to bring Chloe along for assistance. The cat is on a lead when he takes her to shops and wears a fluorescent yellow “service cat” jacket. (There are no further updates on this discrimination claim yet).

The Equality and Human Rights commission has advice for businesses who offer services to the public, about their obligations and legal duties towards assistance dog owners.

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Lesley Furber
HR Consultant
Updated on
January 27, 2023

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