Pets on Patios: are they allowed in Alabama?

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- With the sunshine and hot weather of summer, many pet owners may want to spend some time with their pets in the great outdoors. But what happens when the owner wants to sit down for a beverage or a meal? More times than not -- that pet isn't welcome.

"As it stands right now we don't allow it because the state doesn't allow it," explained Jessica Bowling, event manager for AM Booth's Lumberyard.

Co-owner Jason Sledd of Green Bus Brewing, a Huntsville neighborhood bar, has first-hand experience with the regulation after the health department followed up on a complaint. "We went ahead and posted on Facebook and posted a notice on the door that we could no longer have a pet-friendly policy."

"People should just really know it's not the businesses that are turning away the pets or were not even really allowed to say pet-friendly," said Bolling. She sees the difficulties that come with allowing pets at outdoor spaces. "You can have some contamination issues of cross-contamination -- touching the pets and then touching food."

"I witnessed it at this particular place -- someone setting a dog water bowl down on the ground and then they went and got drinks for somebody else without washing their hands in between," recalled New Market BBQ co-owner, Libby Webb.

From kitten cafes to breweries for dogs -- health departments in several states and cities have adopted policies and regulations to accommodate pets.

The Lumberyard is situated right next door to a dog park. "Unfortunately, we have to turn them [people with pets] away a lot. We've lost a lot of business that way but the rules are the rules."

What are the rules?

Alabama's health department's regulations are adopted from the Food and Drug Administration. The code states in part "Live animals may not be allowed on the premises of a food establishment."

Premises is defined as the physical facility its contents and the surrounding property under the control of a permit holder. "It's just a general sanitation concern and issues for people who have severe allergies," explained Cheryl Clay, public health environmental supervisor for the Madison County Health Department.

The few exceptions include service animals and security and police dogs.

If an animal is seen during a routine inspection, "We do not ask the question of the owner of the animal we ask all the questions of the person in charge of the food establishment," said Clay.

If the animal does not meet the health department's regulation, a four-point violation is given with a ten-day correction period. If the health department is investigating a complaint and it is not near the date for that establishment's health inspection, they remind and educate them about the rules.

There are some exceptions that are outside of the health department's jurisdiction -- like restaurants that obtain a permit from the city to use part of the right of way for outdoor seating. "I wouldn't say it's a lot but nevertheless the city of Huntsville is highly interested in creating a downtown feel that is friendly to its citizens," said Thomas Nunez, manager of planning services for the City of Huntsville.

Ideas for Change

Sledd says there are still misconceptions in public about where you can and can't bring pets. "A lot of people I think still have the image of breweries being pet-friendly, there's been a little bit of adjustment, education going on. We did a lot of that in the responses to the Facebook post."

The state board of health can adopt and issue rules or the state legislature can pass new laws that apply to the health department. "There's a need for the laws to be updated. This is Alabama, things take a little bit long here," said Bolling.

Food establishment owners have some suggestions. "It would be nice if we could post, 'Hey we're a pet-friendly establishment please decide accordingly if you want to come in and spend your money here,'" said Sledd.

"Two different areas of the patio, something you can clean your hands off. Also having one watering area with designated dishware for that would be a good idea," proposed Bolling.

Webb is a pet owner and lover. She supports the right for the restaurant owners to choose, but a pet-friendly policy would not work for her. "It's ours to make those rules in terms of what we want to allow for our customers, in terms of the other people that don't have dogs. Because I would get complaints in just a minute if I allowed pets on my porch."

All owners we spoke with agree, the public's awareness is important too. "Every pet owner should be aware of the rules and be responsible," said Bolling.

At least nine states allow pets at outdoor seating, but for now, the dog bowl in Alabama remains empty.

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