By Jody McCutcheon
They’ve become an urban phenomenon, popular both with those feeling a bit isolated and anonymous in big cities, and those who love animals but don’t have the space to keep pets. They’ve popped up from Tokyo to Toronto, bringing pleasure to millions of people–and animals. Such is the Cat Cafe boom.
At first glance, the cat café may seem cute and boutique, a little sugary, perhaps a passing fad. Look beyond the business opportunity of capitalizing on people’s love for felines, though, and you’ll see some real health benefits for both customer and cat.
The basic concept is that patrons pay a small fee to gain entry to the establishment, where they eat and drink (and pay for) typical café fare in the company of cats—anywhere from a half dozen to a dozen or more of the cuddly critters. The idea is fiercely embraced by urban cat lovers who can’t enjoy feline companionship in the comfort of their own homes due to busy work schedules, disagreeable housemates, small flats or housing regulations that forbid pets. Or how about this scenario: my friend loves cats, but her husband is allergic, so she can’t have them in the house. What does she do? She visits her local cat café.
The first establishment appeared in Taiwan in 1998. But the model really took off in Japan, a nation with a cultural pedigree of feline fascination and frequent prohibitions on pets in apartments. From the first one that opened in Osaka in 2004 to the dozens dotting Tokyo and other cities across the country, Japan has over 150 cat cafés. The craze charged westward across Europe—through Austria, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain—and is slowly but surely making its way across the Atlantic. This year will see cat cafés debut in several major North American cities, including New York City, San Francisco, and Toronto.
“We test-marketed the concept for a cat cafe in Toronto, and the idea really exploded,” says Jennifer Morozowich, whose KittyCat Cafe will be opening later this year. “We’re combining adorable cats with tasty food, great coffee, and fun events like movie nights, knitting classes and a few other surprises. I think a lot of people will feel the cafe is their second home–and in fact, if clients fall in love with a cat, they can adopt it, giving it a ‘forever home’,” she says.
Beyond the business and culture of cat cafés lies the best feature. The very concept goes hand-in-hand with health and wellness. Animal-assisted therapy has been around since at least the late eighteenth century, with cat cafés being a modern example. Patrons engage with “therapy cats” and in turn receive proven medical benefits, including lowered blood pressure, decreased depression and anxiety and increased sensory stimulation. So cats offer stress relief, and cat cafés can help troubled or lonely individuals escape unhealthy social isolation.
Wellness benefits extend to the cats as well, as cat cafés help raise the awareness bar on cat welfare. Most of the establishments’ feline denizens are homeless or abandoned strays. Individual cafés often work with animal hospitals and shelters to ensure the cats are well-suited to interact with fellow cats and humans, and to facilitate a smooth, healthy transition to their new surroundings. Best of all, many cafés offer straight-up adoption. If you really love the cat, take it home with you!
Some have worried about the sanitation of combining edibles with animals, but any business with animals and food under one roof requires licensing and strict compliance with sanitation and animal-treatment regulations, for the protection of the business itself, its patrons and the animals, too. Cats and litter boxes are kept quite separate from food-preparation areas to minimise the risk of contamination. Café clientele must wash and sanitize hands before and after interacting with cats. Furthermore, a good air filtration system is essential for eliminating litter-box odours and making the experience more pleasant for everyone involved.
Some cat cafés offer themes: black cats, calico cats, fat cats, rare breeds. Others boast frilly perks: one Bangkok establishment offers a cat beautician and outfit shop. Heck, a place in Tokyo offers cats and goats. Whatever your pleasure in the purr-suit of happiness, you’re sure to find it at one of the growing number of cat cafes around the globe.
All images: Wikicommons