Pet lover Dani Kahn has a dream job. As the pet director at the Trupanion, a pet medical insurance company located in Seattle, she manages all the pet benefits offered by her employer. That includes a program allowing employees to bring up to two dogs or cats to work with them every day.
“We have about 450 employees and currently there are 267 approved pets that come to work with their owners,” Kahn says. “The approval process is pretty simple. Pets have to be up-to-date on their vaccines, well-behaved, friendly and leashed to the owner’s desk during the work-day.”
To further accommodate pet owners, there is an off-leash area where dogs can play and the company employs professional dog walkers to walk all of the dogs at regular intervals.
And for the last 15 years the company’s pet benefits have also offered one paid day off for any employee mourning the loss of a pet. About 12 employees a year take advantage of the benefit. “If the impact of the loss is so great they need time off to grieve, we certainly want to acknowledge that. If they need more than one day, they can take PTO,” Kahn says.
There is no doubt that more than ever, people have close relationships with their pets. A Harris Poll conducted last year reveals that more than three in five Americans (62%) have at least one pet in their household, with ownership highest among the two youngest generations (65% among millennials, 71% among Gen X).
Americans with kids in the household are more likely to have at least one pet than those without (73% vs. 57%) – and kids in those households may themselves be more likely to be the pet owners of the future.
What’s more, nearly all pet owners (95%, up four points from 2012 and seven points since the question was first asked in 2007) consider their pets to be members of the family. Over one in ten pet owners (12%) have taken out health/medical insurance policies on the pets they own.
Sandra Barker, professor of psychiatry and director of the Centre for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University has done extensive research on the human-animal bond. The Centre’s Pet Loss Support website offers resources for telephone pet loss support and other resources.
“When a pet dies, or is lost or stolen, many of us feel a deep sense of loss and our lives suddenly seem turned upside down. We find ourselves on an emotional roller coaster crying one minute, angry the next, and numb at other times,” she says. “We grieve and grief is a normal reaction to a significant loss. And losing a beloved pet is certainly a significant loss.”
Kimpton Hotels has been a pet-friendly company since 1981, when founder Bill Kimpton started bringing his dog Chianti to work. In a 2014 blog post, the company noted that many of its hotels now have canine “directors of pet relations.” This program started in 2000 when the director of sales and marketing for Hotel Monaco Denver began bringing her lovable Jack Russell terrier to work each day. Hotel patrons liked it so much the concept spread to other Kimpton properties.
The company also offers pet bereavement leave to both salaried and hourly employees. “The parameters of our pet bereavement leave are at the discretion of the employee’s direct manager and can be up to three days,” the company said in an email interview. “It’s not a formal mandate across the board because we know that one size does not fit every situation. But as is typical in our culture, managers tend to be incredibly generous and understanding in allowing mourning employees to take this time.”
Nevertheless, pet bereavement leave specifically offered as an employee benefit is rare. It is much more common for companies to allow employees to use a personal day, vacation day or other PTO to deal with the loss of a pet.
For example, the employee benefits technology company Maxwell Health, based in Boston, has an unlimited vacation policy. “We trust our employees to work hard when they’re here and then take the time when they need it to recharge and mourn the loss of a loved one, whether that is human family member or a furry one,” says Meg Murphy, Maxwell’s manager of communications and business development says.
Maxwell employees are not required to report why they are taking time off, so the company does not track how many days have actually been used for pet bereavement leave.
Why should employers consider offering pet bereavement leave or encouraging employees to take other paid personal leave off as required?
Trupanion’s pet director Kahn believes offering leave when a pet dies not only shows employees the company cares about them and their pets, but it sends the message that they are working for a compassionate employer.
“Look at your numbers and see if it is something you want to do, but I think in this day and age animals are no longer something you leave tied up in the back yard,” she says. “They are in our homes, our bedrooms and on our couches. The death of a pet can be [a significant loss].”
Employees experiencing the loss of a pet can also be referred to The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement, which offers comprehensive resources including free chat rooms and links to pet bereavement support groups in the U.S. and Canada.