My employee asked to bring his rat with him to work. He says the rat is a “support animal” that helps him deal with his anxiety. Can a rat be a “support animal”?
Yes. Given the broad definition of support animals, employers should not rule out any animal as a possible support animal—even if it is not an animal you would typically think of as one that may provide “support” to an employee.
Under both federal and California law, allowing disabled employees to have assistive animals in the workplace may be a form of reasonable accommodation.
California law is broader than federal law in the rights it gives disabled employees to bring assistive animals into the workplace. That protection increased when the Department of Fair Employment and Housing regulations were amended effective April 1, 2016.
The April 1, 2016 amendments made two key changes to the regulations governing assistive animals in the workplace. The amendments:
• Expanded the definition of “support animal”; and
• Removed the requirement that assistive animals must be trained.
What Is a Support Animal?
California law defines “assistive animal” as “an animal that is necessary as a reasonable accommodation for a person with a disability.” (California Code of Regulations, Title 2, Section 11065(a).)
A support animal is one type of assistive animal; other types include guide dogs, signal dogs, and service dogs.
Generally speaking, a support animal provides support to a person with a disability. California disability law did not recognize support animals as a type of reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities until December 2012, when the law was changed to specifically include these types of animals within the definition of assistive animal.
The definition of what constitutes a support animal under California law was expanded with the April 1 amendments. A “support animal” is an animal “that provides emotional, cognitive, or other similar support to a person with a disability, including, but not limited to, traumatic brain injuries or mental disabilities, such as major depression.” (California Code of Regulations, Title 2, Section 11065(a)(D).)
Support animals are not limited to dogs—they can include any other animal that provides emotional, cognitive, or other support to an employee with a disability.
Also, California law formerly required that assistive animals be “trained to provide assistance for the employee’s disability.” That requirement was eliminated with the April 1 amendments. Assistive animals, including support animals, no longer need to have any special training.
Requests for Support Animals
Requests from employees to bring assistive or support animals into the workplace should be handled the same way as any other requests for accommodation: employers should engage in a timely, good faith interactive process with the employee regarding the request for accommodation.
Employers may require that an employee requesting an assistive or support animal provide:
• Documentation from the employee’s health care provider of the need for the animal (for example, why the animal is necessary as an accommodation to allow the employee to perform the essential functions of the job).
• Confirmation that the animal will behave appropriately in the workplace and meet the minimum standards for assistive animals. (California Code of Regulations, Title 2, Sections 11065(a), 11069(e).)
The Labor Law Helpline is a service to California Chamber of Commerce preferred and executive members. For expert explanations of labor laws and Cal/OSHA regulations, not legal counsel for specific situations, call (800) 348-2262 or submit your question at www.hrcalifornia.com.