Bereavement Leave - Over the Loss of a Pet?

After my wife and I brought our beloved but troubled Boston-Boxer mix, Louie, back to the agency from which we adopted him, I felt like walking death.

We’d lost our “son.” An overwhelming sense of guilt had set in that we had not done enough. Forget that all our love, training and behavioral interventions did not heal him. That he was received by the loving hands of a prospective adoptive family at a horse rancher was of little consolation. I persisted in my plunge down the bottomless rabbit hole: we could - we should - have done more.

The last thing I wanted to do was go back to work. I’d asked my supervisor for the day off two weeks before, anticipating that the weight of my grief would exceed my strength to “suck it up” for the sake of my patients. My chief granted me a half- day, then shot me a puzzled look after I told her that I would not return to the hospital the same day after the deed was done.

Upon losing our pets, for whatever reason, we are faced with several choices for dealing with our immediate grief. First, we can be honest about our need for time off (to which we may endure “that look” of confusion or perhaps a snide and heartless remark suggesting how twisted our priorities are). Second, we can call in with a feigned illness. Or, third, we can simply bore through at work because we “owe” it to the company and want to be seen as a “team player.”

Feeling somewhat embarrassed - or guilty about depriving colleagues of our cog in the work wheel - many of us opt for the latter two strategies. People in high-powered positions with enormous responsibilities are probably more inclined to “take it on the chin.”

Setting aside concerns over the reactions of others and/or the perceived loss of professional collateral, state and federal law simply does not provide for family leave over the loss of a pet. In fact, state and federal law has been slow to require leave for the loss of beloved humans, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Pets are not seen as family under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). However, the depression that can arise from pet loss may offer protection under the FMLA or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Savvy and compassionate employers and/or managers may recognize that their best and brightest may be underperforming and grant them leave under the employee’s accrued sick or paid leave.

“[Company] policies should reflect things that are really important to people,” Scott Watson, an attorney at Quarrels and Brady in Chicago, told When crafting that policy, Watson said, it is important to consider the overall work culture within a company, what kind of documentation (if any) would be required and concerns that some may take advantage of a pet-leave policy, thereby driving a wedge between fellow employees.

Nonnie Shivers, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Chicago, adds that a challenge for employers is where to draw the line regarding pet loss. Is the loss of a bunny or a fish equal to the loss of a dog or cat? Is the loss of one fish the same as losing a whole tank of fish? (Who knew that the breadth and depth of one’s love was measured by size and weight?). Shivers herself was grateful when a judge she clerked for granted her time off to tend to her pet’s aftercare needs: “There could be a surprising amount of grief over pet loss,” she said.

RN, Jacqueline Schuck, of Los Angeles missed her first day of work in 30 years after her beloved bulldog, Maggie, passed back in 2014. “It’s very, very painful and some people don’t understand that,” Schuck told the Wall Street Journal. “You’re losing a creature that’s been there for you with 100 percent unconditional love.” Schuck and her husband, Antonio, have since been volunteering for a bulldog rescue group.

Indeed, one will be received with varying levels of compassion within the workplace. Co-workers on opposite sides of the spectrum may offer essentially the same advice in a different tone: “You’ll get over it.” Or, “It’s just an animal. You can always get another one.”

Such attitudes minimize the grieving process and diminish the special place of animal companions in our lives, Sandra Grossman, a pet grief counselor and co-founder of Pet Loss Partners of Los Angeles, told Rescue Legacy. As pet loss goes, “You will never get over it. But, with time and by honoring your grief process, you’ll get through it,” she said.

Empathy within the workplace can accelerate the healing process and be a boon to employee relations and overall moral. Companies like Maxwell Health in Boston, Replacements Ltd. in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants in San Francisco have policies in place that allow employees time off to grieve the loss of a pet.

My chief understands now, too. One year after the worst loss of my life, my chief lost her 12-year old mixed-breed hug-a-bear to widespread cancer. There was no hesitation among our speech-pathology team to encourage her to stay at home and grieve. Two days later she greeted me tearfully when I stopped by her office to offer my condolences.

“The way I reacted when you lost Louie was so wrong,” she said. “Now, I wouldn’t have blamed you if you left.”

And, with those words, my chief won my undying loyalty.