ROBERTSDALE, Alabama — More and more, people are looking for “pet friendly” options, activities that allow them to bring their pets.
Dog parks have popped up in areas throughout Baldwin County and around the country and, particularly in tourist-driven areas, places such as hotels are billing themselves as “pet friendly.”
But officials with the Baldwin County Health Department warn that when it comes to restaurants, because of statewide regulations prohibiting pets in areas where food is served, “pet friendly” is simply not an option.
“Particularly in places like Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, I don’t blame them for wanting to be accommodating for visitors,” said Kipp Kyzar, public health environmental supervisor with the Baldwin County Health Department. “In most cases, I honestly don’t think they realized what they were doing was against regulations.”
According to state statutes, Kyzar said, pets are not allowed on restaurant premises, which is defined as any area, inside or outside, where food is served.
“We had restaurants that were advertising themselves on their website as ‘pet friendly,’" Kyzar said. “To put it simply, that is false-advertising because it simply is not allowed.”
Several restaurants have been contacted by the Health Department to let them know of the regulation, he said, and agents have been on the lookout for animals in or outside the restaurant on inspection visits.
“If we see someone with an animal at a restaurant, we will ask the restaurant owner what their policy is regarding pets,” Kyzar said. “If they identify themselves as ‘pet friendly’ they will then be told that they are not allowed to identify as ‘pet friendly.’”
However, service animals are allowed under the regulations.
“If someone has an animal in a food service area, we are only allowed to ask two questions, ‘Is it a service animal?’ and ‘What service does that animal provide to assist with your disability?’ We are not allowed to ask them what their disability is,” Kyzar said. “I think people get confused between service animals and comfort animals. There is no certification process for comfort animals. If the animal is not certified to perform a service for its owner, it cannot be designated as a service animal.”
While the patron has the right not to answer those questions, Kyzar said, the inspector does have the right to observe the animal’s behavior and if the animal exhibits behavior inconsistent with that of a service animal, the inspection can make the determination that the animal is not, in fact, a service animal.
Inconsistent behavior can include an animal that is aggressive, or an animal that does not have control over its bodily functions, Kyzar said.
“I believe it has gotten better,” Kyzar said, “but we are remaining vigilant to ensure establishments are complying with the regulations. In my mind, the way the regulations are written, it’s like someone parking in a handicap spot who isn’t handicapped.”
The regulation does not just apply to restaurants, Kyzar said, it applies to any establishment where food is served, such as a grocery store, including places like Walmart and Target.
Failure to comply with the regulation constitutes a major deduction, or four points on the establishment’s food service rating, Kyzar said. In rare cases, establishments have been shut down until they came into compliance.
There are places in Baldwin County, such as Pirates Cove, Kyzar said, that have an outside designated area for pets that fall into compliance with the regulations.
“Our jurisdiction extends to the inside of the establishment and any area connected to the building where food is served,” he said. “We do not go beyond that.”
There is a law being considered in the State Legislature which would allow establishments to set their own rules regarding pets, Kyzar said.
“I’m all for it,” he said. “It would certainly clear up a lot of the confusion that’s out there.”
For more information on rules and regulations regarding food service establishments in Alabama, visit alabamapublichealth.gov.