Why Aren’t Dogs Allowed in U.S. Restaurants?

Why are dogs banned from restaurants in the United States? Are they really a health hazard?

As long as dogs are dewormed and properly groomed, many people, including veterinarian Dr. Kjerstin Jacobs of Chicago, Illinois, do not see an obvious health reason for not allowing your pup in a restaurant. However, the FDA prohibits live animals (except fish in tanks) in retail establishments where food is served. Health concerns include pets going to the bathroom on the floor or “people, including restaurant employees, petting them and not washing their hands,” says Lawrence Pong, manager of training and food-borne illness outbreak investigation for the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

States draft their own health codes, but most adopt the FDA Food Code, which then gets enforced by local city health inspectors.

However, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides an easily exploited loophole: It explicitly states that “service animals” must be allowed in restaurants (though they’re prohibited from kitchens and storage areas). Service animals are defined as those that perform tasks for people with disabilities. They include everything from a blind person’s seeing-eye dog to a snake whose role is to help its agoraphobic owner feel less freaked out in crowds.

These animals aren’t legally required to wear any identification, nor are their owners required to carry any documents showing their animals’ special status. A person who’s allergic to animals can’t complain and get them kicked out of a restaurant. And though restaurant operators can ask a patron if his or her animal is a service animal, they can’t legally ask for proof or an explanation of what service the animal is providing. This piece of the ADA is often abused by patrons.

“I live in Venice [California], and people walk their dogs everywhere. There are always operators that will say, ‘No, you can’t bring your dog in here,’ and there will be people who say, ‘Well this is really a service animal,’” says Terrence Powell, acting director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. Though it leaves the restaurant operator open to ADA violations, he or she will often pursue the matter, says Powell. “They’ll say, ‘Well what is it?’ and many times the person with the animal will be caught obviously trying to make something up.”

In many areas of the country, inspectors have become more tolerant of pets. In Los Angeles, for instance, health inspectors allow dogs in outdoor cafĂ© seating areas, provided there are no barricades separating diners from pedestrians, and that you don’t have to walk through the normal restaurant to get to the area, the way you would with a back patio.

“I think an unreasonable approach would be to say that no dogs are allowed at an outdoor table when a pedestrian walking by on the sidewalk can essentially brush up against you with a dog,” says Powell.

Florida was the first to enact a law explicitly allowing dogs in outdoor areas of restaurants. Sheri McInvale, the former state representative who introduced the legislation, says the biggest opposition to the bill had to do with concerns over dog bites and fights, not health issues. The final bill signed into law contained a provision that restaurants had to carry a minimum level of liability insurance in order to participate in the program.

But what about Paris Hilton and her ilk? Ubiquitous handbag pooches are photographed in restaurants nearly as often as their famous guardians.

Many restaurant operators, in a tough spot with conflicting ADA restrictions, city health codes, and attitudes of dog-loving patrons, often take their chances and look the other way.