A policy that allows employees to bring their dogs to work is causing fear and consternation at a state-run pediatric rehabilitation hospital that serves developmentally disabled youth, a former employee said this week.

Lucy Naugle said the pets coming into the Norman-based J.D. McCarty Center aren’t service or therapy animals, and they’re roaming unleashed and having accidents inside a medical facility that provides inpatient and outpatient care to youth from birth to age 21.

She said an elderly Great Dane urinated by her desk. She encountered another employee’s unleashed dog while providing patient therapy outdoors. An unleashed canine chased an employee to her car. Another employee is afraid of dogs and doesn’t want to go into hallways where the animals are present. And an outpatient family, who apparently noticed all the employees’ dogs at work, thought it was OK to bring their own animal, she said. That dog defecated in the waiting room.

“Does this not seem like a bad idea to anybody?” she asked. “Is there liability? I love dogs, but I would never ever dream of taking them to work.”

Naugle, who worked as a physical therapist at the center for 22 years before retiring last year, said she didn’t like the policy when it started in spring 2018, but didn’t complain until current employees recently asked her to speak up on their behalf. She said they’re unhappy with the dog rule, but fear retaliation if they complain.

In addition, she doesn’t think it’s sanitary to have family pets at a health care facility and worries about children who have dog allergies and the autistic ones who can’t speak. Also, she questioned whether the state would be liable if an employee’s dog bit someone.

She filed a written complaint with the State Department of Health last month, which she also provided to CNHI Oklahoma.

In a statement, officials with the J.D. McCarty Center confirmed that they do allow employees to bring pets if the animal is up-to-date on vaccinations and kept out of patient care areas. The employee is responsible for disposing of any pet waste.

Vicki Kuestersteffen, director and CEO of the McCarty Center, said the original dog policy has been in place since 1987. She said the policy “has been embraced by many employees who see it as a benefit.”

Now that a concern has been brought to her attention, administrators will review the policy to determine if revisions are needed, she said.

Kuestersteffen said she spoke with an assistant attorney general who advised her that the center’s “pet-friendly policy” is consistent with the practices of some other state agencies and many private-sector businesses.

She said research indicates health benefits of bringing pets to work. Those include reducing stress, helping nurture productivity in the workplace, promoting positive interactions and improving morale “since dogs can help lighten the mood when things get stressful.”

She said she’d not received a complaint about the policy, but said employees are welcome to share concerns.

Tony Sellars, a spokesman for the state Health Department, said in an email that the agency did receive a written complaint in September about the policy.

“It was referred to the facility for resolution and should be handled by their management,” he said. “This deficiency does not rise to the level of inspection. Our Medical Facilities Service investigates complaints received on areas that deal with (Medicare requirements).”

He said there are no state regulations that address bringing pets into health care facilities. That’s typically left up to management to decide.

Alex Gerszewski, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, said the attorney gave Kuestersteffen general advice on federal and state law.

“It wasn’t intended to be a policy,” he said. “Under federal law, service animals are allowed in the workplace. There are no state laws that prohibit emotional support animals at the workplace.”

Officials with the Cerebral Palsy Commission, which oversees the center’s operations, could not immediately be reached for comment about the policy.

The Legislature appropriated more than $4.9 million to fund the center’s operations in the current budget year.

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