Animals in Restaurants – Cute Complement or Health Hazard?

As I sit right now in one of Dahab’s dozens of restaurants on the Red Sea, I am a little lonely. Why? There are no cats sitting on my lap. In Dahab, Egypt, you see, stray cats are more plentiful than the stars in the desert sky. They roam freely not just on the roads but into the shops, restaurants and even on into my apartment. I love it.

Cat eyeing my glass of wine in a restaurant in Dahab, Egypt

In the U.S. animals in restaurants are almost completely prohibited, for health and cleanliness reasons, which is understandable, as no one wants dog fur in their food, and the thought of eating out of a bowl that a cat previously licked is unacceptable to us. Animals may have fur and bugs, but are you really going to get sick from letting them around your food? Probably not. I think there is a gross-out factor involved for many people, whose cultures just don’t allow them to be at peace with the different standards of cleanliness found in some other countries. Many, many countries we travel to have many and varied different attitudes and standards than our home countries, and embracing them – or at least tolerating them – is one of the ways in which travel can make us grow, I think.

The only places in the U.S. where I’ve seen animals in restaurants is on the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, my favorite vacation spot in my country. These islands seem to have a bit more of a European mindset than the rest of the country, which may explain the friendlier attitude toward pets in restaurants. Even in the restaurants of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, though, I’ve only infrequently seen pampered pets sitting silently in their owners’ laps, never wandering about.

I first noticed that Europe has a different animal attitude when I traveled to the continent on my first solo trip many years ago. Here I saw for the first time in my life diners enjoying not only their food but the company of their beloved animals. Still, as I would later find on the islands in the U.S., these animals likewise lay calmly in their owners’ laps or at their feet under the tables, not daring to make a peep or eat a morsel.

Dog in the Genesis Pub in Luxor, Egypt

Egypt is the only country I’ve spent any amount of time in where animals are allowed carte blanche access to wherever their wandering instincts lead them. Recently I visited Luxor, where I found an extremely animal-friendly restaurant with not only the cats and dogs of the owners hanging out, but a camel and ostrich as well. Restaurants are one of the most popular hang-outs for the stray cats and dogs running wild in Dahab, and most people who live and travel here tolerate this attitude well. I don’t just tolerate it, I enjoy it.

Dogs don’t often wander into the restaurants of Dahab, most of the time poising themselves around the entrance, waiting for opportunities. Cats are far bolder. They love to position themselves close to you, staring at you and your meal in the hopes you will cave in. Sometimes, they even will hop into your lap or onto the table. This makes me happy, but many people can’t stand it and swat them off.

Very happily, since I began writing this post, a beautiful white, orange and black cat has wandered to my table. It has since roamed to the next table, but I don’t take it personally and attribute it to my lack of food. With its presence nearby, though, I’m honestly I’m enjoying my view of the Red Sea with the mountains of Saudi Arabia across the water all the more.

A cat in the Meya Meya Restaurat in Dahab

What about you? How do you feel about animals in restaurants? Based on my recent Facebook posts on this topic, everyone seems to have an opinion. Please let me hear yours in the comments below!

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19 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Sophie says:

    I like cafe cats; can’t be obsessing about hygiene all the time.
    Sophie recently posted..Travel photo: Monkey Temple, Kathmandu ValleyMy Profile

    [Reply]

    Sabina Reply:

    Sophie, I agree. Hygiene is important but we don’t have to overdo it all the time.

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  2. This is a very refreshing opinion, one that I don’t hear often. At the Tel-Aviv University in Israel you can mostly find a similar attitude, where cats sit by your side at some of the cafeterias. They even attend lectures, sometimes sitting on a chair as if they were one of the students and sometimes joining the professor at the front of the class. The challenge is that some people are allergic, and there was an article once on a news site that a student stopped her studies at the university because of her allergies.
    Ayelet – All Colores recently posted..Netanya, Israel: Have You Ever Taken an Elevator to the Beach?My Profile

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    Sabina Reply:

    Oh, it would be so cool to have a cat sitting in on lectures! They’re very intelligent animals, after all ;) I’m happy to hear that at Tel Aviv University cats are so accepted. They’re so quiet and calm and clean, more places should open their doors to them.

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  3. John says:

    I love cats, I am not such a huge fan of dogs. But while in Europe I found the dogs in restaurants to be very well behaved. In that case I am fine with dogs where I eat. Cats of course, should have the run of wherever they want to be :-)

    It is wise to not pet the animals and then eat with your hands. If you pet them (or your kids did) wash your hands before eating.
    John recently posted..Singapore Taxes Increase In Attempt to Cool Condo PricesMy Profile

    [Reply]

    Sabina Reply:

    John, it’s nice to find someone who agrees. True – you shouldn’t pet a cat or dog and then eat with your hands. In Egypt, sometimes, though, this is hard to avoid. ;)

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  4. Marina says:

    I love having animals in restaurants, cafes, tourist sites, wherever! I couldn’t get enough of the fat cats at the American University in Beirut, and I spent more time photographing the cats in Petra than I did of any of the famous monuments… But I am animal obsessed. I’m currently living in London, and you’ll frequently find dogs in the pubs here, lazing about while their owners imbibe. I think their presence makes everything feel more relaxed. I do think it’s true about the US being more uptight in general, but Northern California definitely breaks the rule. There are dogs anywhere there is an outdoor seating area, and I’ve never heard anyone complain!

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    Sabina Reply:

    Hi, Marina – it’s great to know that you’re a kindred spirit. How funny that you focused on the cats of Petra rather than the sights themselves! I don’t’ even remember any cats being there, actually. I’m also happy to hear northern Califorinia breaks the no animals rule. I must travel there.

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  5. The only animals in restaurants should be those on the menu. (The cats in Dahab drove me NUTS!)
    Raymond @ Man On The Lam recently posted..How NOT to Get Locked Up AbroadMy Profile

    [Reply]

    Sabina Reply:

    Oh, Ray – the cats really add to the casual, laid back ambiance here, I think :)

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  6. Andrew says:

    Found your article, thanks for mentioning it in your comment on my post.
    We definitely see dogs in restaurants in Germany. Not really so many cats at all, let alone in places with food. There is a guy that sets up his little fluffy white dog on its own chair in starbucks sometimes.

    Turkey was crawling with cats. In the restaurants too, which didn’t bother me as they stayed on the floor. I really don’t mind animals as long as they actually stay a ways away from the food. The cats though I’m sure help keep the mice/rat in check. Which you may not see, but are probably in more restaurants than we would like to admit.
    Andrew recently posted..Quacks like a duck, but looks like a cat.My Profile

    [Reply]

    Sabina Reply:

    Hi, Andrew – thanks for commenting. The cats typically don’t crawl on the tables here, despite what my first photograph shows. They are in pretty much every restaurant, though. Since most of the restaurants are outdoors and those that aren’t always leave their doors open, there’s just no keeping them out. Tonight I dined with three of them – all on the floor. :)

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  7. Suzy says:

    It doesn’t bother me, just as long as the animals don’t try to steal my food! I remember a dog in Portugal just plopped down right next to my table. He didn’t really seem to want food, just to be near someone. I guess it’s a nice way to have that interaction when you are traveling, missing those pets back home.
    Suzy recently posted..Fort Pulaski, Georgia Wishes You Were HereMy Profile

    [Reply]

    Sabina Reply:

    Suzy, dogs seem to be more common in European restaurants, while cats are more common here. They usually don’t eat the food – unless someone (like me) feeds them. :)

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  8. Abby says:

    I could never bring my hyper boys anywhere, so I marvel at the chill animals I see in cafes around the world. I don’t mind as long as they’re nowhere near the tabletop! Great post idea!
    Abby recently posted..Blogging Burnout in AustinMy Profile

    [Reply]

    Sabina Reply:

    Hi Abby – yes, the cat on the tabletop, while it made for a great photo, is actually an anomaly in Dahab. Usually cats in restaurants here stay on the cushions on the ground where everyone sits ;)

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  9. Jeff B says:

    When I lived in Miami people brought their dogs with them to restaurants but only to the outside tables. I would have a problem with cats all over the place since I am allergic to them.
    Jeff B recently posted..The Madrid Tapas Market – Mercado de San MiguelMy Profile

    [Reply]

    Sabina Reply:

    Hi, Jeff – it’s good to know animals are allowed to sit outside at restaurants in Miami. Most people in Dahab seem cool with the cats everywhere, but some people do shoo them away or spray them with water. Maybe they’re allergic too.

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  10. [...] are a staple of Mid Eastern life“, she remembers. She found the phenomenon exciting, and even wrote a post to encourage people’s acceptance of it on her other website, Solo Female [...]

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