Q: An employee has shown up for work with a ferret on his shoulder, claiming it calms his anxiety and helps him avoid panic attacks at work. When I suggested he leave his pet at home, he became insulted and agitated, claiming he is legally entitled under the ADA to bring his pet to work because it is a “service animal” that enables him to do his job in spite of his mental health problems. Is he correct?

Call Mark Soycher at the HR Hotline: 860.244.1900.
HR problems? Call Mark Soycher at the HR Hotline: 860.244.1900.

A: While they are very intelligent, highly social animals that can form a strong bond with their owners, ferrets are technically not service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Service animal is defined in Title III of the ADA in the Public Accommodations section as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for the purposes of this definition. The work or task performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual’s disability.”

Title III protects the rights of individuals with disabilities to be accompanied by their service animals in public places such as restaurants, hotels, theaters, professional service establishments, recreation facilities, and retail stores.

In contrast, Title I, the employment section of the ADA, does not include a definition for service animal, so there is no automatic entitlement to the use of a service animal in the workplace.

Instead, Title I requires employers to consider “reasonable accommodations,” work environment adjustments that enable an employee with a disability to perform the essential functions of his or her job.

When presented with a request for an accommodation under Title I, an employer can ask for documentation.
Because the scope of the ADA’s Title I reasonable accommodation obligation is quite broad, albeit less specific, it may require permitting not only service animals, i.e., dogs with special training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities, but also non-canine therapy or emotional support animals that provide companionship, relieve loneliness, and sometimes help with depression, anxiety, and certain phobias—even though they do not have special training.

Your employee’s reference to panic attacks, if medically documented, would most likely be recognized as a disability, especially under the broader definition of disability contained in the 2008 amended ADA.

When presented with a request for an accommodation under Title I, an employer can ask for documentation to establish the existence of a disability, how it affects job performance, and how the animal helps the individual perform his or her job.

An employer’s obligation is to reasonably accommodate known disabilities of employees. So while you may not have had an obligation pre-disclosure, once a disability is disclosed, the obligation arises.

As long as the employee can demonstrate that the specified accommodation will be effective and that he is capable of controlling and caring for the animal without undue workplace disruption while still meeting job performance standards, it should be seriously considered.