Assistance dogs, emotional support iguanas, therapy snakes: do employers always have to allow animals at work?

Growing numbers of employees are asking to bring a pet to the office. Bela Gor explains where businesses stand, legally and morally

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Employers are increasingly being asked if employees can bring animals to work but is it a legal requirement to say ‘yes’, especially if the employee is disabled? Questions Business Disability Forum has been asked include:

  • Does an assistance dog have to be trained and accredited?

  • Do assistance animals have to be dogs? 

  • What is an emotional support animal and do employers have to accommodate all animals? 

  • What about health and safety concerns in a clinical or food preparation setting or sterile environment for example?

  • What if other employees or customers are allergic, have religious objections or phobias?

The law

This is an area where the US is ahead of the UK where there have been few employment cases. However, under the Equality Act 2010 (EqA 2010) employers must make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees including accommodating an assistance animal if the employee would be substantially disadvantaged because of their disability without the animal. That brings us to the tricky question of what is an assistance animal?

Unhelpfully, the only definition in EqA 2010 relates to taxis and is limited to dogs trained to guide a blind or deaf person or trained by a prescribed charity to assist a disabled person with their mobility, manual dexterity or who has epilepsy. This means the dog must have been trained and registered with a member organisation listed by Assistance Dogs International or Assistance Dogs UK. 

Many assistance dogs have been trained by their owners. As EqA 2010 only refers to dogs in taxis it is likely that employers might have to accommodate non-registered dogs as a reasonable adjustment. However, an employer can insist that the dog is quiet, well-behaved and does not cause a mess.

Animals other than dogs

This brings us onto emotional support animals. They are not common (yet) in the UK, but an employee might want to be accompanied by an animal that alleviates their anxiety especially in stressful situations like an interview or disciplinary. It will be difficult legally for employers to refuse such requests if they allow assistance dogs. However, the same provisos apply. The animal must be quiet, well-behaved and cause no disruption. 

Conflicts in the workplace

One source of disruption might be objections from other employees or customers such as:

  • Allergies, which might themselves be a disability. Could the person with the animal and the person with the allergy be kept apart on different floors or being in the workplace at different times and a deep clean taking place in-between?

  • Religious or cultural objections which again might be protected by EqA 2010. Could these be resolved in the same way?

  • Phobias. Few might object to a hamster, but a therapy snake could be more problematic. Again, a phobia could be a disability even if it only causes a substantial adverse effect when the person is in the presence of the snake, so consultation is key as well as the ability to work apart to avoid unpleasant surprises.

There is no precedent yet for one person’s emotional support animal eating someone else’s but keeping the animals apart would be sensible.

Health and safety

A genuine health and safety concern would make it unreasonable to allow an animal into the workplace and justify any discrimination, but this must be based on a proper risk assessment which considers mitigations such as those above.

In short, if an employee is disabled and the animal helps to remove or reduce the impact of barriers the person experiences at work then it might be a reasonable adjustment to allow it in the workplace.

Bela Gor is head of legal at Business Disability Forum