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Can You Stay Home From Work If Your Pet Is Sick, or Worse, Just Passed Away?

Advice from a career coach, an HR expert and a veteran veterinarian

Parenting a pet, no matter what kind, can be a frustrating and bewildering experience. Animals can’t tell you what they want and need (directly, at least), so we’re here to help you answer any questions you have about your favorite companion — whether they be furry, slimy, feathered, scaly or anything in between — with insight from the experts. This is “Basic Bitch,” an advice column for pet parents who just want the best for their best friend.

The Very Basic Concern

My dog and best friend, Buddy, is on his last leg, as they say. I’ve had him for almost 15 years, and he’s been the best companion a guy could ask for. He’s grown weary, though, and his snout has long been dotted with gray hairs. I can tell that he could be headed to Doggie Heaven any day now.

It’s been especially hard leaving for work in the mornings, saying bye to him and looking back toward the house as he watches me walk to my car through the window. I’m starting to think that I should take some time off to be there, just in case I need to rush him to the vet. Plus, if he were to pass away, I’m not sure I’d be able to hold it together at the office. I don’t know that my boss would understand, though.

Basically: Can I stay home to take care of my sick pet? How do I go about asking my boss? Also, how can I tell if my pet is sick enough to warrant me staying home in the first place?

The Expert Advice

Rita Friedman, career coach: How you approach time off for pet health really, really depends on your company culture. The truth is that it should be nobody’s business why you need time off — especially if you’re good at what you do, and not burdening a colleague with heaps of extra work on a looming deadline. But of course, in so many offices, it’s completely expected that you’ll offer up some reason why you suddenly can’t lead a big client meeting and are walking around crying hysterically. If you’re in one of those environments, or if you just returned from a long vacation, you might best be served by suddenly needing “dental work” or explaining that you need to care for your sick Aunt Mildred, who nobody has ever heard of before. An emotionally challenging time is often not the best foundation for waging a campaign against the status quo — at some other, less taxing moment, you might want to talk to HR or work within the company to establish some general personal time off plan.

I am, however, a fan of honesty in general. I also think that most work environments would be understanding of needing a day off here or there for a pet’s serious illness or death. If you’re in the type of work environment where everyone knows that Fluffy is ill, or the type of environment where you think you’d find sympathy for the situation, disclosing why you want time off might also help your coworkers interact with you in a supportive way. If you’re going to need significantly more time than a couple of days, or you don’t have the PTO, think first about other ways you could offer to continue to contribute — can you do extra shifts or assist with special projects later? Are you able to work remotely? Would a couple of half-days for appointments actually be all you need? 

It can be tricky to navigate the hotbed of deeply held feelings around both the issues of time off of work and how we treat our animals. I personally consider pets as core family members and know the associated devastation firsthand. But I’d also advise pet owners to be mindful of the family health issues that their colleagues may be experiencing privately, and to keep references to pet-children to a minimum — excessive crying or flaunting extra time off for Spot’s colonoscopy is inconsiderate to someone dealing with a human chronic or terminal condition.

Jerry Klein, chief veterinary officer at the American Kennel Club: There’s really no reason a person would need to stay home from work just to observe or nurse a pet. If you feel that your dog or cat is that ill, the only reason to not go to work would be because you’re taking them to your veterinarian. As for when to do that, you know your pet — when in doubt, always call your veterinarian. They’re there to guide you and help you.

Also, you may not need to miss an entire day of work, as long as you’re able to bring your pet to the vet or emergency room early enough. In this day and age, most areas have 24-hour emergency hospitals available to evaluate, treat, and if needed, hospitalize your pet so that they can receive optimal care, and you can still go to work.

Here are some questions to ask yourself before heading to your veterinarian or to the emergency room:

  • Is your dog very young — less than four months old — or elderly and acting ill?
  • When did the symptoms start? Longer than an hour ago? Are they continuing?
  • Was your pet normal last night?
  • What time do you need to leave for work? How many hours will you be gone until you get home? Are you able to get home within a few hours to evaluate your pet?
  • Are you able to call your veterinarian for advice before you need to leave for work? If so, call them!

Here are some reasons to call your veterinarian and be late to work because you need to take your pet to the them right away:

  • They’ve missed more than one meal.
  • They vomited more than once during the night or in the morning.
  • They vomited and had diarrhea.
  • They’re unable to hold water down.
  • They have bloody diarrhea.
  • They have continued retching.
  • They have difficulty breathing.
  • They’re straining or having difficulty passing urine.
  • They have severe lethargy or unresponsiveness.
  • They had a seizure.
  • They had any form of trauma: Another dog bite, they got hit by car, etc.

In other words, there really are few, if any, reasons for an owner to not go to work in order to stare at their pet. If you have any concerns about leaving your pet alone, you should contact your vet or an emergency room hospital.

Staci McIntosh, HR expert: I have five suggestions:

  1. Lay the foundation for your relationship with your pet. If you’ve never mentioned your pet before, and all of a sudden you say that you’re grieving, there may be some skepticism. Be sure that you have photos of your pet in your office; that you’ve talked about your pet. If there’s an opportunity for a social occasion outside or a bring-your-pet-to-work day, make sure that you take advantage of that opportunity to demonstrate your bond with your furry friend.
  2. Have good attendance to begin with. If you’ve maxed out your sick time, vacation time or PTO, and you want more PTO in addition to that, it’s going to be a difficult sell. If you have an older or sick pet, reserve your time off so that you have it to use when you need to. 
  3. If you want to use sick or bereavement leave for your pet, speak to your boss privately. If your pet is “like your child,” and if you’re not gone a lot for your human kids, most bosses will be willing to blur the lines if it’s not a regular occurrence. 
  4. If paid leave isn’t an option, ask your boss if you could take time off without pay. If it’s not a usual occurrence for you, many companies will be okay with that as long as they aren’t paying for you to be home.
  5. Inherent in all of the above suggestions is the assumption that you’re a great worker, have good relationships with your coworkers and aren’t an attendance problem. The trend for HR is for companies to be more flexible when workers want time off, but that notion comes with the expectation that you’re still getting business results that help the company grow.