As a student, and mother to three cats, the concept of a cat cafe connects with me on a level so deep no words could ever fully describe it. Who among us wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to dine in the company of cats? Maybe all of you, yet the sudden and expansive growth in the cat cafe business suggests there must be something special about them. The supposed “first” cat cafe was established in 1998 in the city of Taipei, Taiwan; a place known as “Cat Flower Garden”. Despite the fact that it was not technically the first, it was perhaps the first popularised cat cafe and thus is definitely the beginning of this cat cafe craze. Japanese tourists specifically adored it, leading to the growth of cat cafes across Japan and soon the western world. According to “Neko no mise” (Shop of Cats – Tokyo’s first cat cafe) some avid cat fans can spend up to six hours living it up amongst the felines and some regulars will go as far as to take sick days from work. Between 2005 and 2010, 79 new cat cafes cropped up all over Japan and today there are at least 9 established British cat cafes with multiple more on the way – including the “Scratching Post Cat Café”, cited to be a new addition to Byres Road. This huge growth in number begs the question: what is it that makes cat cafes so popular?
The growth of cat cafes in Japan can be attributed to the fact that, according to cat cafe owner Norimasa Hanada, most Japanese rental apartments don’t allow pets – young workers living by themselves (prime cat owners) are simply unable to afford the sort of house that allow pets, thus take advantage of the ability to pay for a room full of cat companionship and coffee. This issue isn’t necessarily specific to Japan. However, as many people across the globe face long hours, tight working schedules, limited cash and very limited free time becoming parent to a furry child is perhaps the least of their worries. This may explain the movement of the cat café craze across to Britain and Europe. Although the chance to exist surrounded by as many cats as possible is basically living the dream, in researching this phenomena I found myself considering how happy the cat cafe lifestyle could be.
It turns out that my hesitations were not unique, as multiple cat welfare charities have come forward against cat cafes. Cats Protection posted on their website: “It is very likely that some or all of the cats involved will become stressed as a result of being in a confined space with a continually changing group of people.” Cats, perhaps even more so than dogs, are best suited to stable environments, spending time with the same people and becoming comfortable with them. Despite the charm, it is also practically impossible to ignore that every cat cafe is indeed a business and the concept will always be a way to take advantage of cats to sell themed coffee and cake. One major problem with this relatively new idea is that currently cafes need only meet food safety requirements. They are not regulated from an animal welfare perspective. Each individual cafe seems to have different ideas on what is the best way to do it. Tragically, this means scenarios such as the Leicester “Cats, Cakes and Coffee” cafe, which received a hygiene rating of just one. Perhaps even more tear jerking is a tweet by Dominic Shellard in reference to the cafe, who noted “cats looked very sad.”
Yet, despite all the evidence telling me that cat cafes have and could go very wrong very quickly, a part of me can appreciate the appeal and benefit. A lot of the cats that inhabit these cafes are rescue cats that would otherwise be in the already filled RSPCA shelters or amongst the nine million other stray cats in the UK. The owners of Glasgow’s proposed cat cafe also claim that they will provide a home for rescue cats. Some cat cafe owners even offer the chance for customers to rehome cats, such as the Kitty Cafe in Nottingham which has rehomed up to 60 cats since March of last year, or Lady Dinah’s who rehomes any cat that does not suit life in the colony. However, the constant shifting of the cat dynamic by rehoming cats so often may create the sort of instability that cat welfare charities fear. However with the right regulations in place, creating a standard of care for the cats that considers their personality, health requirements, space and good ol’ fun, a cat cafe could become a haven for a small number of cats and humans.
[Éirinn Fitzgerald –@eirrinfi]