Pets in the Workplace

HEL Blog post
Published On: April 20, 2023Categories: Blog, Employers

Considerations around Allowing Pets in the Workplace

Allowing pets in the workplace (and many other places) is a growing trend in Canada. When I first visited the head office of Amazon in Seattle some 15 years ago, I initially thought I had the wrong address given the large number of employees coming and going in the lobby with pets! Led by tech employers such as Amazon, more and more employers are allowing pets in their workplaces. With the spread of working from home during COVID and the current focus on getting employees back together in the office, offering to allow pets can be a way to soften the transition for pet owners. This article “strays” (all puns intended) from strictly “bare bones” legal considerations to summarize the legal framework around pets in the workplace and then discuss the pros and cons of a pet-friendly workplace. Our next blog post will offer “pointers” on introducing a Pets in the Workplace Policy.

The Legal Framework

At this time, employers generally have a broad discretion to allow or prohibit pets in the workplace. The only exception is for employees who can show that they need a “service animal” with them. While originally this really only covered service dogs for the vision-impaired, many employees have sought to have their doctors designate their pet as a “service animal” to support their mental illness. Airlines have been flooded with claims that various animals are “service animals”. Under Human Rights legislation, an employee who can show being accompanied by a service animal is medically recommended will be entitled to bring the animal to work, unless to do so would be illegal for other reasons (e.g. animals are banned from food production workplaces for sanitation reasons) or would constitute an “undue hardship” for the employer. The latter term is not defined, but could include allergic reactions of other employees in the same workspace or lease terms prohibiting pets.

In the discussion below, we will focus on the pros and cons of allowing pets in the workplace for the broader workforce. As a first step, before even considering allowing pets in the workplace, employers will need to ensure that having pets in the workplace is legally permissible. In particular, employers need to confirm:

  1. Their lease or landlord’s policies do not ban pets;
  2. Their business is not subject to safety rules or concerns or sanitation regulations, which either prohibit pets or just make the safety risks (to pets and employees) too high.

The “Pawsitives” of a Pet Friendly Workplace

It is no secret that the already high rate of pet ownership in Canada has jumped over COVID, with dogs representing the majority of those new pets. Many modern pet owners treat their pet like a family member, incur substantial “petsitting” or dog-walking costs if they are not at home and have enjoyed working from home as it allows them to spend more time with their pet. Employers who offer pet friendly workplaces are therefore targeting a fairly large section of the workforce. Surveys confirm that allowing an employee to bring their pet to work can help attract and retain pet lovers. Since most employers still do not allow pets, this can really differentiate your business from rival employers.

Other studies show that, broadly speaking, allowing pets in the workplace can:

  1. Improve overall staff morale as co-workers enjoy the pets;
  2. Act as an “ice-breaker” for interaction between co-workers, building team spirit;
  3. Act as an antidote to stress and burnout for owners and coworkers alike. According to experiments, the mere presence of pets is calming in stressful situations.

The Cons

Some of the cons can cancel out the “pros” above:

  1. Some employees may be fearful of dogs or other pets and thus be stressed out and more likely to quit or stay home if pets are in their workplace;
  2. A significant percent of the workforce is allergic to some degree to dogs and cats. These employees will be unhappy if the presence of pets imposes discomfort on them. Legally, employers would have to address this health concern, which, so far, outweighs the happiness of pets and their owners.

To mitigate these concerns (and make sure they are not barking up the wrong tree), employers should conduct a “pre-pet policy” survey to identify such problems (see Part 2 of this post) and potentially plan to provide an attractive “pet free” area in the workplace for employees who do not want to be around pets.

Employers whose clients and service providers visit their workplace will also need to consider if any would have allergic reactions or not appreciate pets being present.

Pets, particularly active or needy ones, can also be a distraction from work and pet owners may abuse the presence of a pet to take extended breaks. This can be addressed in a policy, however.

Other “cons” are more legal or liability focussed:

  1. As the employer allowing pets into the workplace, the employer will likely share liability with the pet owner if the pet injures an employee or other person or causes damage to property. While it would seem likely that WorkSafe legislation would bar an injured employee from suing, an injured customer or supplier would be able to sue. You may need to check your insurance for coverage for this risk;
  2. Badly trained or unhappy pets can cause damage to your premises, including through unforeseen “accidents”;
  3. With multiple pets comes the risk they will not get along and engage in fights or risky or noisy play leading to possible claims by owners of injured pets! Yes, this happens in dog parks every day;

Introducing a Pets in the Workplace Policy

See our next blog post for suggested steps and content for such a policy.

If you want more information on this topic, you can contact us at:

Geoffrey Howard:  

604 424-9686

Sebastian Chern:   

604 424-9688