Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : April 2007

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 Bar Bulletin Focus

Animal Law   

Pets at the Office (or What to Do When Your Cat Sends an Email to a Client)

When I left home every morning to start my 12-hour day at my old firm, the eight sad eyes of my three rabbits and one cat would follow me out the door. So when I started my own practice, I was elated to be able to share the day with them.

Since starting my practice, I (and some of my colleagues) have learned a few things:

  • Staples and PetsMart should merge because many office supplies double as pet toys.
  • When a client wearing a dark suit visits your office, don’t let her sit in the cat’s chair.
  • Judges are not sympathetic when you announce that your dog ate your brief.
  • Minimize all computer windows before leaving your desk to avoid inadvertent e-mails, text deletions, etc.
  • Pets are great for keeping squirrels and birds from your office entrance.
  • Cats like to meow into phone receivers.
  • You actually have more credibility with clients when you have an animal sitting in your lap.

As I own the building where my office is located, these trinkets are among my biggest concerns. However, for those working in rental or condominium office space, or in an employer’s building, office pets must be considered more carefully.

Positively, studies have shown that allowing employees to bring pets (usually dogs) to work offers many benefits. Employees have reduced stress, work longer hours, experience increased morale and camaraderie, and even smoke less. Moreover, a pet-friendly office attracts employees seeking progressive work environments.

On the other hand, concerns regarding pets at the office cannot be ignored. Many people have legitimate (or purported) animal allergies, fears and other sensitivities. Animals can create liability issues. Cleanliness can be a challenge. And some feel pets disrupt office activities with no compensating benefits.

In the middle is the need to comply with lease provisions, association by-laws, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations and other requirements regarding animals. So when counseling a client interested in establishing a pet-friendly office, ensure that she weighs the pros and cons as well as any legal issues. Then help her establish pet policies that work for everyone. An effective policy might include:

  • Granting permission on a revocable, pet-specific basis.
  • Requiring thorough clean-up of accidents and/or fines for any damage.
  • Setting a “three accidents (by the pet, not the owner) and you’re out” rule.
  • Setting a “one act of aggression (again, by the pet) and you’re out” rule.
  • Requiring that pets be clean, flea-free and vaccinated.
  • Requiring that pets be spayed/neutered – not de-clawed, as many consider such to be inhumane.
  • Requiring that pets be leashed and/or under the control of the employee at all times.
  • Making conference, food, medical and industrial/shop areas off-limits.
  • Requiring that pets be covered by the employees’ personal liability insurance.
  • Requiring that pets be even-tempered, socialized and quiet.

The policy also should stress that the employer is a business, and that pets should not compromise its operations or the comfort of staff and visitors. To ease the process, a pet-friendly policy can be phased-in by, e.g., first allowing pets just one day per week, or limiting the number of pets allowed in the office at any time. Lastly, to accommodate future employee sensitivities, a pet policy may need adjusting down the line, from designating only a portion of the office as pet-friendly to completely restricting animal visitors.
 
Employers unable to accommodate pets but desiring an animal-friendly image might consider adding veterinary insurance to their benefits package. Vet insurance also reduces employee absenteeism and stress from sick pet care.

Although some might consider office pets to be ridiculous, statistics suggest otherwise. Two-thirds of American households include at least one pet – twice as many as include children. One in five employers allows pets at work. OSHA has no restrictions against animals in the workplace. And today it’s not difficult to establish that someone is entitled to an exception to some pet ban due to emotional stress.
As Americans work longer hours, many not only feel guilty about leaving their pets alone all day, but miss the companionship and stress-relief garnered from them. Pet-friendly policies can enhance a work environment, but only to the extent that the comfort level of the humans is considered … and fuzzy paws are kept away from keyboards.

Angela Robinson is the Principal of A.S. Robinson & Associates, PLLC. She concentrates her practice in business, real estate and environmental law.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: April  2007