During the Saturday lunch rush, customers at Montreal’s Café Venosa vied for feline attention. “Some people bring catnip spray!” a local woman whispered as we watched a cat vigorously rub his head against a young man’s black shoe.
“That’s cheating!” I complained. She nodded solemnly. But when 30 cat lovers find themselves in a room with only eight cats, sometimes they play dirty.
Feline aficionados instinctively understand the concept of cat cafes: Of course, the presence of a half dozen cats vastly improves the experience of going out for coffee and a scone. Cat detractors are baffled. People pay admission to hang out with cats? What an unhygienic scam! But obviously the target market is big enough; cat cafes are popping up all over the world. Angelenos have been drinking lattes while petting kitties at Crumbs and Whiskers since it opened in 2016.
Why Cat Cafes?
Taiwan gets credit for opening the world’s first cat café, Cat Garden, in 1998. The idea soon caught on in Japan, where 79 cat cafes had opened by 2010, some getting a bit gimmicky by featuring all black cats, rare breeds or roly polies. The trend eventually spread to Western countries. Now locals and travelers can get their cat fix from New Zealand to Estonia. It seems like every metropolis – Boston, Salt Lake City, Dublin – that doesn’t yet have a cat café has a place holder website announcing one is coming soon. In true British tradition, Bristol has Bag of Nails, a cat pub.
Some cat lovers visit cat cafes because they can’t have a kitty at home, due to landlord restrictions, an allergic partner, or a temporary living situation. Others can never get enough cat love.
The Cat’s Experience
Some critics worry that the cafes exploit and profit from cats. However, the cat cafes I’ve visited have all seemed pretty cushy places for cats to either live or hang out while waiting for adoption. Most US cat cafes partner with shelters, serving as foster homes for adoptable kitties. Cat cafes free up space at rescue centers and give cats and humans a relaxed place to get to know each other to make sure a prospective adoption is a good match. Cafes generally charge an admission fee and sell drinks and snacks, which hopefully covers kitty upkeep and enough for the owners and employees to eke out a living.
Each café has its own anti-harassment rules, such as not picking cats up or bugging them if they choose to retreat to high places. Placards around Café Venosa warn, “Ne tirez jamais un chat par la queue, les moustaches, les oreilles, les poils…vous comprenez.” In other words, do not pull on any kitty parts.
Cats who’ve had enough human interaction can retreat to a back room. Presumably, that’s also where the litter boxes are. Even the most hardcore cat fanatic doesn’t want a boxside seat while drinking a mocha.
Science & Stats
Why does animal companionship bring such joy? Philip Tedeschi, the executive director of the University of Denver’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection, has spent decades studying interspecies relationships. “One of the things we know now about the new science behind human/animal interaction is it is changing our brains so that we see a release of oxytocin and an increase in dopamine production in the brain.” Yep, time with Fluffy boosts our feel-good hormones.
The American Pet Products Association estimates that nearly 65 % of American households include at least one pet. Americans count approximately 77.8 million dogs and 85.8 million cats among their family members. “Those are everyday forms of mental health that we’ve never talked about that way or studied much,” Tedeschi says. “But that really is a major part of the way people cope with everyday stressors, and they’re some of the most important relationships we have.”
A Few Notable Cat Cafes
Crumbs & Whiskers, Washington and Los Angeles
After visiting Catsmosphere in Thailand, animal lover Kanchan Singh decided to launch Crumbs & Whiskers in Washington, DC. Last year her LA shop opened. Singh is especially proud of the café’s social mission to help cats. At press time, the two cafes had found homes for 291 cats. A weekday visit costs $22. C&W offers espresso drinks, tea, and cookies. Reserve your time slot ahead, especially if you want to attend their Sunday morning yoga class.
The Cat Café, San Diego
Downtown San Diego’s Cat Café is open daily from 8 am to 3 pm. They keep the crowds small, allowing only five customers to reserve each one-hour slot, which must be booked at least 24 hours in advance. Ten bucks gets you a drink and an hour in the cat playpen. The Cat Café has found permanent homes for more than 220 cats, including some who were blind, one-eyed, missing tails, or had other special conditions.
Purringtons Cat Lounge, Portland, Oregon
Owner Kristen Castillo was inspired to quit her job and open Purringtons after watching an online video of a Parisian cat café. Visitors eat nachos and deviled eggs and drink draft beer and cider against a backdrop of futuristic space cat murals. Serving wine posed a special challenge, Castillo told me. They chose larger, more stable glasses that were harder for cats to knock over.
Purringtons offers purr yoga every Sunday night. They occasionally host special events, such as two recent shows by internet sensation Moshow. His Facebook Live performance – rapping in the tub while bathing his cat Ravioli – got more than 200,000 views. On ordinary days, visits cost eight dollars per hour.
Café Venosa, Montreal
This all-vegan cat café has indoor and outdoor patio seating. The space is bright and friendly, with a mixture of turquoise and exposed brick walls, bright animal-oriented artwork and comfortable red overstuffed chairs. The menu offers vegan pizzas, sandwiches, soup, salads, desserts, espresso, and tea. I recommend the Cesar tofu wrap.
Siberian Cat Café, Chelsea, Quebec
Natalie and Michael Lebrun’s cat allergies inspired a business: After falling in love with their new Siberian kitten, Clarisa-Freyja – who didn’t make them sneeze — they founded the world’s first hypoallergenic cat café. Now the allergy-ridden public can enjoy petting long-haired cats. This all-Siberian cat café was essentially a retirement home for the breeding cats from the Troika Cattery.
Pay for kitty cat time? Definitely. These furry four-legged therapists are cheaper than the two-legged variety, and might be enough to boost your oxytocin by adding a dose of pure happiness to your day.
This article is a part of the Aug / Sept 2017 issue of Whole Life Times.