Are cat cafes good for cats?

This week the Claire Ross of the BBC writes to consider “Are cat cafes good for cats?

Cat Cafes are a coming trend, popping up in many cities to great acclaim by cat lovers desiring feline company.  Bates documents nine such sites in London, and reports that they are fully booked. There are dozens all over the world, there is even a Wikipedia page.

From a human perspective, this seems like a harmless, possibly charming idea. And it is a good idea to help boost adoption for homeless animals, no?  There are so many cats needing safe homes, and many people who love cats and benefit from being with them, but cannot live with them. Why not make a safe place for cats, perhaps open the way for adoptions, and give people a chance to be with felines while they have a coffee?

Heck, I was even thinking about starting one near my own home. (By the way, a web search for “how to start a cat café” yields many, many links.)

I learned that the picture isn’t as clear as one could hope.

First of all, having animals in any public facility is a public health challenge, and animals are generally prohibited from any place preparing and serving food. Strictly prohibited, no fooling.  So, the “café” part of the idea needs to be designed carefully to keep the cats completely separate from the food.

The feline inhabited areas must be kept scrupulously clean for everyone’s safety and comfort. It’s a lot of work keeping a cat’s space clean to human standards. And in many jurisdictions, it is also work keeping the powers-that-be satisfied on these issues.

Second, the cats must be cared for. You don’t just get some cats and put them in a room. They have to be screened by a vet, and probably groomed. Cleaning, feeding, and keeping track of a bunch of cats is a lot of work. Regular checkups is probably a good idea, too.

In other words, this is going to be hard work and expensive. Which is probably why many operations have to charge people so much for just sitting there being ignored by some cats. 🙂

My dreams of a café have hit some rocky details, for sure.

The BBC report refers to concerns for the well being of the cats in such environments. This may be good for humans, but is it good for the cats?

Several animal protection organizations, including the British Small Animal Veterinary Association, have raised concerns that these environments may not be healthy for the cats. Setting aside obvious problems of  mismanagement and misbehaved customers (kids chasing “kitty”), we have no idea what a “good” environment would be. How much space, what kinds of amenities, etc., should be recommended? And even in a “nice” environment, is this actually healthy for the cats?

The most important issue is that cats are not especially social animals, and generally do not like being visited by strange people. A bunch of cats living in a confined space with each other, invaded by strangers continuously–this is not a normal home life for a cat, and a lot of cats don’t like it.

Cat’s differ, of course, but it isn’t easy to really evaluate an individual cat’s reactions to such a situation. An unhappy, stressed, or depressed cat will look pretty much like a happy cat: both will sleep a lot. A cat purrs when it is happy and when it is scared.  It’s hard to tell.

Part of the concern I see is that the operators of these spaces, like most cat lovers, seem to over estimate their own understanding, and project their wishes into their perceptions. The room is filled with content-looking cats and happy people, which is a joyful vista. It is hard to look at the scene with an acid eye, to wonder how many of the cats are quietly depressed, and silently suffering.

Recalling my own experience, I see that this is very good point. Thinking of all the cats I have known well, only one was truly gregarious with people, happy to walk up and be petted by anyone. Most were shy with visitors, and some did not like being with other cats in their home. These preferences were discernible only through long acquaintance, and the signs of unhappiness were often hard to see—a depressed cat sleeps in a ball and purrs, which looks and sounds the same as a happy cat.

This adds yet more complexity to opening and operating a cat café. You need to somehow select compatible cats. And, unfortunately, most cats who need a home might well not be great prospects for public café duty, so this is not a broad solution to placing the homeless.

Cat Cafes are not necessarily a bad idea, but getting them right for the cats is not necessarily trivial wither. It is easy to be blinded a love of cats, and make poor judgments about this, so we need to take extra care to see if we can find the right cats.

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