Pets in the UAE: How a shifting attitude is seeing more places become animal-friendly
Not so long ago, the idea of bringing along a pet dog to a lunch date with friends, or on a weekend break away in a hotel, would have been unthinkable. But times are changing in the UAE, as more and more cafes and restaurants are willing to allow well-behaved dogs to sit on their outdoor seating – so long as nobody else complains.
Pranjal Kulkarni, a housewife from India, started up the Facebook group Dog Friendly Abu Dhabi three months ago in order to let other dog owners in the capital know about any walking spots, cafes, and restaurants she comes across that are amenable to dogs.
“It seems like Abu Dhabi is becoming more dog friendly, as dogs are now being allowed to sit in the outside areas of cafes,” she says, pointing out that Café Firenze in Al Zeina is becoming a popular spot for people with pooches. Kulkarni and her five-year old Saluki, Ben, also join friends for lunch at Jim’s Kitchen Table in Masdar City, and next weekend, they’re trying out the Sportsman’s Arms in Zayed Sports City, which has a terrace where dogs are welcomed.
Many UAE residents are not used to seeing dogs, so their initial reaction can be one of fear. But Kulkarni says she often manages to change their attitudes. “When people see that our dogs are calm, not hyper, then slowly they realise that not every dog is out to bite you. They even come and ask for pictures with us.”
Malaysian Dubai resident Jessica Lee says that her Pomeranian pooch Sparky always gets lavished with positive attention, when she takes him out with her to the Irish Village in Al Garhoud. “I think that’s because he’s a very cute dog,” she says. “I’ve also noticed there are lots of cafes in JLT, where I walk Sparky, that now allow dogs to hang around. I think that slowly, Dubai is becoming more relaxed about dogs.”
On the Palm Jumeirah, both Barrel 12 sports bistro and Sun & Mediterranean restaurant have become popular weekend hang out spots for pooches and their owners.
Tanya Booth is a regular customer at Barrel 12, along with her Labrador, Sally. She’s noticed how the Palm’s canine residents often live a pampered lifestyle. “The owners treat their dogs like people,” says Booth, who is an Australian housewife. “Some dogs get special water, which is the only water that the dog will drink. Owners throw big doggy birthday parties, with bone-shaped cakes. Back where I’m from in Australia, people don’t do things like this. I think it’s because in the UAE, some people can’t have kids because they live in an apartment and work long hours. A lot of people I know have dogs who go to doggy daycare, and the owners pick them up in the evening. The dogs become their replacement kids.”
Booth says that it’s not just the dog’s owners who get to dine out in style at Barrel 12. “Some people bring their own food in a little container for the dog, as you might for a baby. And lots of dog owners order their own meals off the menu for their pets too – even steak, and all that fancy food. Dogs back in my home town just get the leftovers!”
Urban Bistro in Dubai Media City launched its monthly Puppy Brunch in January, which offers the chance for doggy owners to dine whilst also offering their pups brunch, charging Dh5 for doggy nibbles. Just as many other Dubai brunches provide children’s entertainment, pups at Urban Bistro can be booked in for a nail trim, hair brushing and pet sitting session. “The Puppy Brunch has proved to be very popular,” says Urban Bistro’s manager Sinu Shaneran. “My CEO thought it was a good idea for people with dogs in Dubai who find it difficult to go out with their animals. The dogs are in a different seating area, so they don’t bother the normal walk-in crowds.”
One pup brunching there last month was Indy, a two year-old Bichon Bolognese, whose owner is British PR entrepreneur Natalie Johnson. “I went there with about 10 friends with dogs, it’s really nice for the dogs to have a place to socialise,” she says. “Most of the dogs were off their leads, but not Indy – we still can’t quite trust him not to run away!”
Although owners now have more options than ever for dog-friendly outdoor-space eateries, Sarah Brookes, a Dubai-based Briton with a dachshund called Melong, points out that the boom in dog-friendly businesses is offset by an ever-shrinking number of open spaces in the UAE where dogs are allowed to roam. “There are fewer and fewer places to safely exercise our beloved dogs due to all the parks being closed to them,” she says. “For this reason, any restaurant or venue which allows dogs does well, from a business perspective.”
Pet-themed festivals and special events are now held regularly in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, catering mainly to dog owners keen for a chance to take their pooches out for a stroll in like-minded company.
Brookes says she takes Melong to every dog-related event she can, in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai. “Look at the number of pet events that have been held lately - Pet Socialist twice in two months, the Pet Festival twice in the past year, and the Al Habtoor Horse and Hound Show in January. There is certainly a demand for such events.”
In Dubai, even hotels are becoming more accepting customers of the furry kind. Jumeirah Living World Trade Center on Second Za’abeel Road in Dubai welcomes dogs in its fitted apartments (and there’s a grassy lawn where they can wear themselves out), as does Donatello Hotel in Al Barsha and Grand Hyatt Residences in Dubai Creek. At W Dubai Al Habtoor City, every doggy customer is treated like a VIP (Very Important Pooch). Upon arrival, dogs receive a welcome pack with bowl, bed and ball, and a special doggie menu and dog sitting services are offered too. But a doggie sleepover comes at a cost - Dh500, plus Dh150 per night for deep cleaning services. About 25 guests have brought along their dogs and cats since the hotel opened last July. One recent canine guest was Rizzo, a Yorkshire terrier. His owner is Naomi Dsouza, a Dubai-based social media influencer who posted about her stay on Instagram. “I was pretty astonished that a hotel as big as the W is actually allowing pets - It’s a big deal!” she says. “This is one of the top-notch hotels in Dubai, which is why I really feel like Dubai is now taking the initiative to allow pets. Rizzo could just enter the lift and walk around the lobby without a leash, there was no one stopping him. Everyone was waving at him, saying ‘hi Rizzo.’ They didn’t know my name, but they knew his.”
Dsouza, who has lived in Dubai for the last 20 years, feels that dogs are becoming more accepted in town. “A few years ago, I wouldn’t have imagined that I could sit outside Tim Hortons in Downtown Dubai, having a nice cappuccino with Rizzo.”
Fiona Sheldon, from the UK, has lived in Abu Dhabi for the last two years with her two black Labradors, Ruby and Toby. She’s found that owning dogs has helped her to break down social barriers with people from other cultures. “I’ve had so many people stop me, take photographs, ask me questions, and want to say hello to the dogs. They’re big, but they look so fun loving, and people are surprised to see two big black dogs together. I’ve only ever had positive experiences.”
But if attitudes are changing towards dogs, what about cats? Two years ago, Dubai opened its first cat café, Ailuromania, where visitors can enjoy a coffee in the company of more than a dozen felines. They include Kenda, a tabby, who their staff claim meows like a dolphin.
Cafes aside, one place you might never expect to see a pet is in a corporate office. But at Pomegranate Language Institute in Al Barsha 1, the resident Arabian Mau, Seedy, has the run of the finance, marketing and director’s office. “He belongs to all of us,” says the company’s chief executive Mariam Shibib. “For children he’s an absolute delight, as he’s very social. The mums often drop off kids here and stay to play with him, too.”
Seedy, who was a street cat before the institute adopted him last year, has his own favourite beanbag, as well as toys and treats to enjoy. The institute is open seven days a week, which means Seedy is rarely alone for long. “We leave a light on for him in the office when we’re not there,” says Shibib.
The decision to take on a pet wasn’t an easy one, she admits. “We did a vote. Ninety per cent of the staff were fine with it, but there were two inbetweeners.”
But Seedy has managed to win the critics over, according to Shibib. “People in the UAE are starting to understand how much peace, happiness, and responsibility a pet can give you.”