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Pets in the Workplace — “Stay” or “Go to your Crate?”

A dog laying on the floor while several people are working in desks nearby

I think the only thing more divisive than the question of animals in the workplace is what kind of coffee (or tea, for the tea-drinkers) should be in the break room. Since spring appears to be here and all the critters want to get out of the house with their people, let’s talk about when (or if) local government agencies should allow pets in the office.

Not a Pet! We’re Working Here

But first, let’s be clear that this blog is not primarily concerned about service or emotional support animals. Service animals are defined in RCW 49.60.040(24):

"Service animal" means any dog or miniature horse, as discussed in RCW 49.60.214, that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. The work or tasks performed by the service animal must be directly related to the individual's disability.

Additionally, you may be asked to allow emotional support animals (ESA) at work. This includes comfort animals and therapy dogs. The ability to bring a service animal to work implicates the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) and the Washington Law Against Discrimination. Service animals must be allowed in unless they create an actual risk of harm or undue hardship.

Your agency’s code or regulations may allow for ESAs to be treated similarly to service animals to assist persons with disabilities. If an employee asks to bring an ESA to work as an accommodation you would go through the same iterative process that applies to any other request for an accommodation. See the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Enforcement Guidance: Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship Under the ADA (2002) for more on reasonable accommodations.

Back to Pets

Even if the animal is not a service animal or ESA, some folks just want to bring their furry friends to work. Doing so may make things easier for the staff member, especially if there’s no one else at home to take care of the pet, but, as with most issues, there are at least two sides to consider. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has an excellent summary of the pros and cons of pets in the office. Agencies will have to balance the positive (work-life balance for the owner, “bonding” among employees that like animals) and the negative aspects (distraction from work, possible damage to facilities, possible harm to other people, potential for an allergic reaction from a coworker).

Many of the negative aspects can be mitigated by good policies that are enforced consistently. A good policy will address these issues:

  • What kind of pets will you allow? (Don’t laugh, I have friends with more uncommon pets like birds, snakes, tarantulas, and iguanas).
  • How often can someone bring their pet to the office? Emergencies only, special occasions (e.g., National Pet Day), or more frequently?
  • Who approves a pets-at-work policy? Can anyone “veto” it? Does it take unanimous consent by immediate office mates?
  • Do you want to impose licensing/vaccination requirements?
  • Will you require the pet owner to sign a release/indemnification agreement?
  • Will you require the pet owner to have their own insurance?

Think carefully about those releases, indemnification agreements, and insurance requirements. Talk to your agency attorney and your risk pool or insurance provider. Your agency may be using chemicals or cleaning supplies that can harm animals or there may be plants inside or outside your worksite that are poisonous if consumed by animals.

At a minimum you’ll want the pet owner to release your agency for harm that might come to the pet. On the other hand, even if you require the pet owner to “defend, indemnify, and hold harmless” the agency for harm the animal might cause to someone else, the person harmed will still likely seek to hold the agency responsible for harm caused by the pet.

Final Thoughts and Sample Resources

As agencies adjust to a post-pandemic workforce, this and other quality-of-life issues become even more important to staff. Consider whether allowing pets in the office aligns with your Diversity, Equity, Inclusiveness, and Belonging (DEIB) policies and your wellness programs. Whatever your agency decides, clearly communicate your policy to your staff and enforce that policy consistently.

Below are a few sample policies on pets in the workplace from local governments and other agencies:

Also, you may find the following general references useful:

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Steve Gross

About Steve Gross

Steve Gross joined MRSC as a Legal Consultant in January 2020.

Steve has worked in municipal law and government for over 20 years as an Assistant City Attorney for Lynnwood, Seattle, Tacoma, and Auburn, and as the City Attorney for Port Townsend and Auburn. He also has been a legal policy advisor for the Pierce County Council and has worked in contract administration.