Pets in the workplace

Photo by Shannon Rapose / Special to the Sun; Copper wags her tail as she struts into work at the Kern Valley Sun with her mama Michele Lynn everyday. As a mascot, Copper spreads joy (and hair) everywhere she goes, content with her salary of treats and belly rubs.

By Elise Modrovich
Special to the Sun

Every June, pet owners across the country celebrate Take Your Pet to Work Week, which culminates with Take Your Dog to Work Day on June 22. It is a great opportunity for animal lovers to bring their dogs and cats and other such best friends to the office, and for employers to see the benefits of pets in the workplace—and those benefits are prompting a growing number of businesses to be pet-friendly all year long. In fact, patrons of many local establishments may have noticed that the trend has caught on right here in the Kern River Valley.

Aside from the cherished furry “mascots” one can expect to encounter in animal-centric businesses like the Kernville Veterinary Hospital, visitors to places ranging anywhere from hardware stores to rafting centers to business offices can regularly come across their four-legged (and other) residents. At one time or another, Jill at Archie’s Hardware has rescued and housed a cockatiel and finches, a tortoise and goldfish, a guinea pig and a rat, and even Petunia Pig. Currently, a bunny and longtime furry occupant “Smokey” the cat, who regularly greets customers and happily lets you pet and adore him, are the only ones inhabiting the little store, at least for the moment.

And if you don’t find them, they might just find you. Bella, everyone’s favorite feline and a fixture at Builder’s Mart in Mountain Mesa for the last 6 years, has been known to jump from shelves into a passing shopper’s basket. “Most people, and especially the kids, really love it,” says owner Steve Spradlin. “They come in and instantly want to ‘find the kitty.’ But some people, especially if they’re allergic, may not like it so much.” Spradlin says that Builder’s Mart has been home to “at least one or two cats for the last 40 years. People think we have them as mousers, but they’re mostly lazy, fat, spoiled conversation pieces.”

Dogs and River Rafting companies go together, well, like dogs take to water. At Whitewater Voyages in Kernville, Caesar, the Chinese Crested and Murphy, the terrier, are constant fixtures in the office. At present, owner Luther Stephens is dog-sitting Brodie, the chocolate Lab, and by all reports, the pooches all get along swimmingly. At neighboring Sierra South, employees regularly bring their dogs to work, and owner Marianne DeChant thinks it’s great – up to a point. “Sometimes if we get too many bringing their dogs in here at the same time, it can get kind of hectic,” says DeChant. “It’s kind of hard to book a rafting trip with dogs barking in the background. Not super professional. So we try to limit the number that are here at once.”

At the Kern Valley Sun, publisher Marsha Smith reports: “We have at least one dog in the building every day, at times as many as three, depending on the day or schedule. Everyone here is a dog lover and it just seems to add something to the work environment. We may have to clean the floors a little more often, but it is worth it. Many of our customers drop in just to bring the dogs a treat, especially for Copper, our mascot, and are disappointed if she is out on sales calls with her human mom, Michele Lynn. Copper is a Golden Retriever and Lab mix rescue. Another regular is Finnegan, a Shih-tzu rescue, but he is on restriction at the present time after breaking a rule. But he shall be back after he has served his time.”

Recent scientific studies have confirmed the many benefits of pets in the workplace. A 2012 study by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University found employees who brought their dogs to work had reduced stress and experienced less negativity throughout the day compared to colleagues without pets. “Studies have demonstrated that pets in the workplace contribute to stress reduction, as well as employee teamwork and satisfaction. Employees who can bring their pets to work are also more productive,” said Steven Feldman, executive director of the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) in Washington, D.C. “Employees feel supported and have a better perception of their employers if they can bring their pets to work. They are also more likely to collaborate and work better in teams because pets help forge social connections.” And pets in the workplace create benefits for employers as well. Allowing that healthy work-life balance has revealed a proven correlation with less absenteeism, increased productivity, and higher-quality output from employees.

It appears that both owners and their companions reap the benefits. In 2004, researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia found that humans who petted a dog for 15–30 minutes during a study experienced a 10 percent drop in blood pressure, while the dogs’ blood pressure dropped as soon as the humans began petting them. A day at the office also provides more stimulation for a dog than a day spent home alone in a crate or the backyard. Feldman says the trend will increase the positive impact pet ownership has on health care costs on a personal, professional, and governmental scale. “We know that pets reduce stress, alleviate depression, improve heart health and reduce obesity. We also know that pet owners visit the doctor less often than non-pet owners.

In fact, pet ownership saves the U.S. healthcare system $11.7 billion every year,” he said. “Once we calculate the improved workplace productivity, the benefits will be even higher.”

But before you gather up your pooch and head for the office, experts advise companies considering a pet-friendly workplace should first develop common-sense policies for pets.

Says Feldman, “If having a happy, motivated workforce that works together is important, companies should strongly consider written pets-at-work policies.”

Justin Powers of Kernville Cowork, agrees. “We don’t like to make policies until we have to, but generally, we would treat the dogs like we do our members. We would vet them and make sure they’re a good fit for the space. Generally we look for a quiet and calm personality, not very active or attention seeking, which could be distracting to others. Then there would be a trial period. If the dog fits and leaves the place in good condition, we’re okay with it. Of course, we have to keep in mind if any members have dog allergies, but so far, it hasn’t been a problem.”

By all accounts, there are multiple benefits to allowing pets in the workplace, so here are some more tips to help employers ensure a healthy, happy, and peaceful environment for all concerned:
– Maintain good hygiene. Not only should employees be healthy at work to avoid spreading sickness, but pets should as well. Pets should be groomed, cleaned, as well as free of contagions and fleas or ticks.
– Confirm vaccinations are up to date. Keep a copy of the pet’s most recent vet records on file.
– Introduce new pets slowly. Pets are still animals, and need to be acclimated appropriately to new environments. Especially when there are other pets and people involved. New and unique environments can stress pets out and cause unusual or destructive behavior.
– Employees have to respect and appreciate that their pet is not the only one in the workplace. They also need to understand just how well their pet is trained and what their dietary needs are. Some pets eat anything and as much as they can, leaving little to nothing for the less enthused pets. Respecting the workplace by training and observing pets can prevent any unseen issues.
– Pet-proof the office. It helps to alleviate any miscellaneous accidental damage that naturally occurs when caring for pets.
– Take both pet and employee safety into consideration. Animals may act out for a plethora of reasons or no reason, and they cannot be held accountable for their actions. Awareness and a plan to handle this should be prepared and taken seriously.
– Allergies to pets. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America found that 15 to 30 percent of the total population has some kind of pet allergy. Employers need to be sensitive to employees with these allergies and the effects it may have on their workplace experience.