For me, the ideal afternoon would consist of a cup of tea, a really good book and a, preferably ginger (but I’m not too fussy), fluffy cat. I like the idea of cat cafes in theory, it’s great for customers who don’t have cats to spend some time with one to relax, and as long as the cats have a safe place to go which they can get to at any point if they are distressed, then I don’t see an issue. However, this doesn’t always happen.
But where did this craze actually begin? In 1998, the first ever cat cafe opened in Taipei, Taiwan, the Cat Flower Garden. It spread to Japan and then went global, with Shoreditch’s Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium (possibly one of the most well known cat cafes and the first one in Britain) opening in 2014. It is still fully booked most days – an instant success.
Animal charities in the UK are divided on whether or not cat cafes are good for cats. The RSPCA, Cats Protection and the Celia Hammond Animal Trust are against them, saying that keeping lots of cats in a confined space with different people in and out every day is bad for the cats. The constantly changing people can be hard on them – just because Susu is fine with it, that doesn’t mean every cat is! Also, some cats just aren’t suited to lots of attention.
The RSPCA don’t recommend high numbers of cats being kept together, saying “Our main concerns include the stress caused by unfamiliar strangers wanting to stroke and handle the cats.” Andy Sparkes, the veterinary director at the International Cat Care says that it’s difficult to get the environment they need right, but not impossible. “While cats are solitary animals, domestic cats have evolved and many are able to live in groups quite happily. I’ve seen cats in some poorly run re-homing centres, where there are many confined to one room. That can be far more stressful.” There seems to be a general agreement that regulation is needed – behaviour manager at Cats Protection Nicky Trevorrow says that “Cat cafes are not a suitable environment for cats because they are in a confined space with a revolving population of people. They need a stable environment – more so than dogs.”
The charities have good reason to be concerned. Cafes like The Cat’s Paw in Tokyo’s Sumida district had to close for a month because they violated the animal welfare act and neglected the cats, homing 62 elderly and sick cats in a 30 square metre cafe. Yachiyo Kurihara, from the Tokyo Animal Welfare Centre said “The cafe breached animal welfare laws, so we took action. We warned the cafe in January and told them how to treat their cats better, but the neglect continued.” A cafe in Leicester was shut down only weeks after it opened in 2015 because of hygiene. The only requirements currently are food safety ones, and each cafe sets their own animal welfare standards – which is completely unacceptable. You’d like to think that those setting these cafes up would put the welfare of cats before anything else, but unfortunately this is not always the case. Often these cafes are popular with families, especially families with young children, and cafes are often criticised for allowing cats to be chased by children. Some cafes though have a minimum age for visitors.
Not all cat cafes are bad though. Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium in Shoreditch is home to 13 rescue cats. Visitors are requested to wash their hands, and they have some strict rules: “This is their home so we’d ask you not to pick them up, or stroke them while they’re sleeping. We encourage you to take pictures but please don’t use a flash.” The founder, Lauren Pears, says “We have a system where our cats are checked every four hours. We keep track of things like their movement, if they are engaging with people or other cats, when they drink and so on. We know all of their personalities and we would know if any of our cats were no longer happy in this environment.” Cafes can also be adoption centres, like Kitty Cafe in Nottingham. Owner Kate Charles-Richards says “The cafe allows the cats to interact and show off their personality, which they couldn’t in a cage. Too often cats are overlooked in shelters because they aren’t ‘pretty’.” Although, Nicky Trevorrow (Cats Protection) says “I think some rehoming centres do need to improve their facilities but I don’t think cat cafes are the answer. They don’t meet the needs of cats.” The RSPCA would rather people volunteer at a shelter than go to a cat cafe.
Having cafes as adoption centres isn’t the worst idea, because animal charities are struggling to keep up with the rising numbers of homeless cats. The RSPCA housed 31,556 cats in 2012 in the UK, an 8% increase on their 2010 figures. They blame irresponsible pet owners on this, for allowing their cats to breed unchecked and for not getting them ‘done’ – one female cat can have 18 kittens a year, and most people cannot or aren’t prepared to home them. There’s an estimated nine million stray cats in the UK, versus 7.4 million homed.
One solution to the problem is the Poezenboot in Amsterdam, a houseboat for rescued cats. Henriette van Weelde in 1966 found a family of cats sheltering opposite her home, and decided to take care of them. Another cat joined, then another, then another… soon a houseboat was remodeled for cats, so she could take in strays. They’re completely ran by volunteers who get the cats healthy, sterile, vaccinated and rehomed. They have very limited opening hours for the public, and their beds are cornered off so you can’t get to them. I think it’s a remarkable solution to the problem – cats are still looked after and rehomed, and Amsterdam natives can visit cute cats!
As long as cat cafes put the welfare of the cats first, and have an aim to rehome cats, then I think they’re beneficial. Harm comes when it isn’t done properly, and the only focus is profit. Fostering saves the lives of millions of cats, and cat cafes can be done in a good way – they just need to be regulated better.