Ask most pet owners how they feel about their animals, and they will probably tell you that they consider them a part of the family. In the UK, half of all adults have pets, with 26% owning a dog and 24% sharing their homes with cats.
For a lot of people, their animals are far more than just another mouth to feed. Not only do we love them and their companionship, we enjoy exercising, walking, playing and even chatting to them. They might chew our clothes and scratch our furniture, but they can also ease loneliness and reduce stress, anxiety and depression.
Losing a pet can be unimaginably difficult. Yet asking to take time off to deal with the death of a pet is something not many people are able to do. Last year, Emma McNulty, from Glasgow, said she was too upset to work after her terrier Millie died — but was told to find cover or risk being fired. Unable to find a replacement, her part-time job in a sandwich shop was terminated.
But with our animals having such a significant impact on our lives, is bereavement leave for pets something businesses should be taking more seriously?
As an employee, you have a right to time off to deal with an emergency involving a dependant, the advisory, conciliation and arbitration service Acas states. This could be a spouse, partner, child, grandchild, parent or someone else who depends on you for care. There's no legal right for time off for dependants to be paid, but some employers might offer pay. However, it’s unlikely a pet would be included in this benefit.
Compassionate leave can be granted by an employer as paid or unpaid leave for emergency situations, but this is at the discretion of the employer. Essentially, some businesses may be understanding and allow employees who lose a pet some time off, but they have no legal obligation to do so.
In the 1980s, Virginia Commonwealth University researchers Sandra Barker and Randolph Barker asked dog owners to complete what is called the “Family Life Space Diagram” in which symbols representing family members and dogs are placed within a drawn circle representing one’s life. In 38% of the diagrams, the dog was placed closer to the owner than other family members were.
Another study, published in 2017, states the majority (77%) of dog and cat owners report that their pet is a family member.
“People talk to them, include them in family portraits, spend time picking out the perfect outfit for them, hunt with them, jog with them, send them to school, forgive them quickly even after they are hurt by them, turn to them on bad days for a lift, spend thousands of dollars on them, choose places to live that are best for them, post videos of them on the Internet, include them in their wills, confide in them, and feel torn apart inside when they die,” the researchers wrote.
With this in mind, it makes sense that the loss of a pet is often a cause of deep grief. Suddenly, a being you shared your life with — new relationships, new homes, new jobs — is no longer there, and can’t be replaced. In fact, research suggests the attachment between humans and animals is often so strong that it is common to mourn in a way that is very similar to the feelings and behaviours associated with the loss of a human family member.
Grief affects everyone differently. Some feel sadness or anger, others experience stress or disbelief. There’s no “normal” response to the death of a loved one, including a pet. While some people are able to carry on working, others may struggle.
Of course, there’s the risk that some employees will abuse the system if compassionate leave for a pet’s death is allowed. But the same could be said for sick leave and other crucial policies.
Moreover, turning down a request for someone to take time off to grieve may have a detrimental impact on employees. If someone is forced into the workplace, it’s unlikely they will still be as productive and perform as normal. An employee who feels they’re not being treated without empathy may well call in sick anyway, which can be hard to disprove.
A supportive approach shows the organisation values its employees and their lives outside of the workplace. Allowing workers to take a day off to say goodbye to a much-loved pet is more likely to lead to a happier, committed workforce.