'Pawternity' Leave Acknowledges Pet Owners' Needs

Pet-friendly policies could translate into employee engagement and retention

By Kathy Gurchiek Jul 10, 2018
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When Anne Doussan adopted Celie, a Labrador retriever mixed breed in 2016, she had no idea her 8-week-old pup had three serious heart conditions and would require frequent trips to the veterinarian. Her boss at One-Sixteen, a real estate investment company in New Orleans, was understanding when Doussan needed to take paid time off (PTO) for Celie's appointments.

Golden retriever puppy."They were incredibly understanding of my puppy's special needs," Doussan said, noting that she was allowed to report to work a few minutes later than scheduled or leave a few minutes early from her job as executive assistant. And with her supervisor's permission, she took extended lunch breaks to check on Celie. When Celie began having seizures, Doussan's boss let her bring Celie to work so Doussan could keep a careful eye on her. Her boss even let Celie take refuge under his own desk during rainstorms. When Celie's condition required her to stay home, Doussan was allowed to work remotely.

Doussan experienced the benefit—however informally—of "pawternity" leave. Pet-friendly employer policies are a trend, according to Steven Feldman, executive director at Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) in Washington, D.C. HABRI conducts research into the health benefits of having pets.

"Over the last five years we've seen this [trend] increase," Feldman said.  "Millennials are getting pets as their 'starter kits.' A lot of Millennials, before they have children, often end up with feline or canine children as a way to start [parenting]."

In fact, Millennials are the primary pet-owning generation, slightly edging out Baby Boomers (35 percent and 32 percent, respectively), according to the American Pet Products Association.

"Those [pets] are just as much a part of their families as human kids will be later on. They're looking for … acknowledgement [from employers] of the important role of pets in their lives."

Kitten climbing through wall.That acknowledgement can take different forms. Organizations that don't allow pets in the workplace may still offer pet-supportive benefits—pet health insurance, pet bereavement leave, time off to take a pet to the vet—that "signal you're looking at the employee's entire family," Feldman said. "These are all things that show you care."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Coordinating Leaves of Absence]

That can translate into engagement and retention. Ninety percent of employees in pet-friendly workplaces feel highly connected to their company's mission, fully engaged in their work and willing to recommend their organization to others, according to a survey of 2,002 full-time workers in the U.S. HABRI and Nationwide, a health insurance provider headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, conducted the online survey in December.

Pets are considered part of the real estate team at AE Home Group in Baltimore, said Jeff Miller, who is a realtor for the company.

"Most of our real estate agents have dogs, and many of our clients are the direct result of time spent at the dog park," Miller said in an e-mail. "Whenever an agent gets a dog, it's like we're gaining a new team member. We'll lower that agent's client load for the month and encourage them to get involved with local dog-training groups and organizations. We find that this almost always pays off with even more clients and a larger network of homeowners and potential homeowners." 

Green-winged Macaw.Questions to Consider

Marie Larsen, SHRM-CP, office manager and HR generalist at Searls Windows and Doors Inc. in Plainfield, Ill., said her employer does not offer pawternity or pet bereavement leave, but it would support an employee who wanted to use PTO for pet care or time to mourn.

"I've been that grieving employee and knew that I would be useless at work after putting our dog down last August. That's why we took her in on a Friday afternoon, I took the afternoon off, and my family and I had the weekend to be together and grieve. If a pet were to die suddenly, obviously the timing would be out of the employee's control," she said.

However, while Searls would allow an employee whose pet had died to take the day off unpaid if that employee had no PTO left to use, Larsen said she would struggle to recommend offering specific pet bereavement or other pet-related time off.

"Having specific days for pet care or pet grieving leaves a company wide open for problems. Having a general policy that allows employees with pets to utilize their standard PTO for furry family members might be a better overall approach," she said.

Creating a pet-friendly office takes some thought, Larsen noted. She suggested employers consider the following questions before venturing into pet-supportive benefits:

  1. "What constitutes a pet? A Dog? Cat? Lizard? Gerbil? Fish? Horse? Someone's pet is someone's pet, regardless of what type of critter it is. If one pet owner gets time off, ALL pet owners should get time off," Larsen said in a SHRM Connect discussion.
  2. "How much time would a company allow? One day per year? Two? One per pet? One day per pet might work if the employee lost one animal, but what do you do for someone who lost a tank full of fish? I had a friend who put one of her dogs down, then less than a month later had to put her other dog down. How much time off would she get? One day for each dog? More? Less?" 
  3. "Bringing a new pet home, especially a very needy puppy or kitten, could take weeks for them to mature beyond the 'baby' stage. How much time would a policy allow for these situations? A couple of days? A couple of weeks?" she asked. 
  4. "What do you do about employees with no pets? How do you provide similar benefits to prevent these employees from claiming discrimination?" 

A specific pet policy makes sense, Larsen said, for businesses where pets are part of the culture, such as Rover.com, which provides dog-sitting services nationwide.

That's the case at Seattle-based Trupanion, which provides medical insurance for pets. The company offers its 500 employees three days of pet bereavement leave. It has had 250 dogs "and a few brave cats" in the workplace, according to Michael Nank, the company's public relations manager.

"Our pets are an important part of our culture, and they constantly remind us why we come to work—to help the pets we all love to receive the best veterinary care," Nank said in an e-mail. "When one of our employees loses a pet, we are acutely aware of the family-like bond that exists between them and their pet, and the need they may have to take the time to grieve and process the loss."

Kitten playing upside down.

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