What would a coffeeholic cat lover dream of? As I confess to be one of them, I would say an afternoon coffee in a cat café is pretty high on the list!
A cat café is a theme café where customers pay a cover fee to watch and interact with cats whilst having their coffee and cake. The concept itself is not new – the first one opened in Taiwan in 1998 – but within the past decade they have spread throughout the world and become particularly popular in Japan. I had never come across one on my travels so I was quite excited to hear about one opening in London in 2014. It would be more or less on my doorstep and definitely closer than Taiwan!
However, my enthusiasm wasn’t totally unreserved. Cat cafés around the world have faced criticism from animal lovers who are concerned about the stress that living in a large colony in a confined commercial space and being handled by ever-changing humans on a daily basis would cause to the cats. Before I’d let myself get too carried away I wanted to find out more about the ethics of the new place as I wasn’t going to support a business that might not have the cats’ welfare at the heart of its operation. Would the café be more like a circus to amuse the customers than a relaxing space for both the patrons and residents? Where would the cats come from and how many would there be? Would they have places to rest, perch, and hide?
I followed Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium, as the place was to be called, on social media right from its planning stages, witnessing its internet crowdfunding success and finally the grand opening. Hearing about its goals and principles as well as the daily life of its feline residents convinced me it would be ‘my kind of place’.
Lady Dinah’s was primarily a quiet, calm two-storey tea house and a home to only nine adopted mixed-breed rescue moggies, who would stay as long as they were happy to be part of the colony. If any of them showed signs of distress, they would be rehomed to a good home and replaced only by another rescue cat whose character would suit the environment. No cats would be bought from breeders or kitten farms, and patrons would have to follow certain basic rules during their visit. The rooms were equipped with plenty of climbing frames (some high up on the wall outside human reach), hammocks, and cat toys as well as a giant ‘hamster wheel’ and places to escape to if the human company was no longer welcome. As pleasant as it sounded, I resigned myself to the fact that due to the popularity of the place, my best option to have coffee and cake in feline company was in my own home until the unforeseeable future.
However, the day did come when I could get a booking. Just seeing the café window made me smile: totally relaxed cats having an afternoon nap, not at all bothered by people stopping to stare and point. I liked the way the sessions were organised: every customer had a designated 90-minute slot and the entry was staggered, which kept everything calm and pleasant for everyone, including the residents. From the reception we were taken to a small interim room where we paid our ‘welfare charge’, washed our hands, and got the instructions how to behave: feel free to brush and play with the cats but don’t disturb the sleeping ones, don’t chase them or pick them up, and turn off the flash if you photograph. Common sense really.
I had expected the rooms be crammed with people but to my pleasant surprise, there was plenty of room and more tables than patrons. Of course you had to allow chair, sofa, and bookcase space for the cats too! We were all free to sit wherever we wanted, interact with the cats, walk around, lie on the floor – or just sit, watch, and eat cake. The staff were really friendly and obviously smitten with their residents. They were very diplomatic too: it’s a skill to remain polite but firm when someone insists on stroking a sleeping cat, despite having been told to leave them be.
Depending on the time you visit, the cats can be very active or incredibly lazy. After all, as cat owners know, they sleep A LOT! Apparently some people visiting at the nap time have been disappointed at the cats’ inactivity but we are only the visitors and need to accommodate our lives around the cats natural rhythm. Personally I couldn’t have cared less about the sleepy state of most of the residents: it gave a good chance to watch and photograph them, from a respectable distance. What could be more relaxing than sipping your coffee, munching a lovely piece of cake, and watching stretched out, sleeping cats? Oh, and as for the coffee and cake, both tasted great. I might have the cream tea next time though!
Since Lady Dinah’s, I’ve also visited cat café Purnauskis in Tampere, Finland, which was a fun and relaxing experience: a lovely lunch in good company, surrounded by some laidback and some cheeky felines, all obviously well looked after and cared for. The café co-operates with a local rescue centre and provides patrons with information of cats waiting for adoption.
Have you visited a pet café? What do you think of the concept? I would love to hear your thoughts.