(Photos above and at top of Miagola cafe in Turin, Italy by Getty)
Then there's the one issue humans will go out of their way to avoid: the litter box. I've seen litter boxes hidden in garages, patios, under tables or even in closets in a desperate attempt to hide evidence that cats go to the bathroom. While shelters often have multiple litter boxes for their group housed cats, they also tend to place all the litter boxes in an adjacent small room with a tiny cat door as an entryway. Unfortunately, this creates, in the cats' minds, one litter "station" (kind of like a public bathroom with many stalls) which does not give cats much choice about where to go. And that one door makes it possible for cats who bully (and there are plenty of them) to block other cats' access to the boxes - which leads to all the unfortunate scenarios you can probably imagine. Cat cafes need to plan for a central space with plenty of room, and entrances.
When it comes to interacting with humans, Most cats also have limits to how much handling they will tolerate or where they like to be petted (overstimulation). No dis intended to cat lovers, but I've observed a lot of people petting cats in my professional life, and to be frank: Many people don't know how to pet a cat. Feline body language can be subtle, but a belly up is not always an invitation for a belly rub and a wagging tail does not usually mean happiness. When people come into an establishment like this (be it a café or shelter) they usually want to do one thing: pet the cats. And that may not be what the cats want.
So should we just give up on this idea? Cats Protection Agency believes so: "...We believe that people who care about the wellbeing of cats would not want them to be exploited as a gimmick to sell coffee and would therefore not wish to encourage the launch of these establishments." I'm going to reserve judgment right now and hope that with careful planning and understanding, cat cafes will work.
That's because the promise of a well-done cat cafe is a wonderful thing. If done properly, they can promote adoption, give cats a break from shelter cages, and give people who can't adopt the opportunity to get a cat fix. Interactions with animals are often good for humans, and at least in the case of petting dogs (no one has studied the effects of petting cats yet), can reduce blood pressure and increases oxytocin levels (the "love hormone").
But they need to be done right. No cat café has secured a final U.S. location or yet opened. So while things are still in the formative stages, how can these establishments set up for success - and also create spaces that we can feel good about visiting? While I'm assuming that cat cafes will provide plenty of enrichment, scratching options, and vertical territory for their cats, here are a few basic rules to help make them a great new development for cats -- and us:
1.Cats should not be expected to "perform"
Cat cafes should be promoted as low-key, almost library-like environs to relax and be around cats. Cats prefer to call the shots when it comes to interactions with people. Cats need the ability to get away from human interaction if they want to, even if that means disappointing customers or limiting the number of human visitors at any one time.
Jacqueline Munera, a certified cat behavior consultant at Positive Cattitudes in Florida, had the opportunity to visit cat cafes in Japan. She noted that the cats "were able to choose to interact with the humans, other cats or hang out in private areas on shelves and walkways up above the action." What is most important in her opinion is "that the cats are allowed to make their own choices." Anita Loughran, from the Cat Cafe Melbourne agrees, and says that in her establishment, "If a cat is not in the mood for attention from people and other cats there will be many areas in which it can be by itself including high shelves along the walls, tunnels and boxes to hide, and a separate room closed off to customers accessible only by staff or cat flaps."
2. Pick your cats wisely
At the Melbourne café, cats will be selected with a local rescue group and "will need to have the right personality, previously been indoor only cats, get along with other cats, and get along with people and children. This will ensure we have a group of cats that will adapt well to a cafe surrounding." Unfortunately, this may not help "less adoptable" cats, as the type of cats that will do well in a café environment are those who also tend to be easily adopted out of shelters – the friendly, young, outgoing ones who adapt well to noise and activity. Still, choosing the right cats will improve the chances of success.
Some cats don't do well in active environments, or around other cats. Designing cafes with a few housing options (cages, single-cat rooms and group housing rooms) could allow for flexibility to meet an individual cats' needs. And there needs to be a backup plan for cats that cannot cope with living in cafes, be it a foster home or other, less demanding adoption facility. Furbacher's plan: "If we find any of the cats aren't happy at the cafe, they will be rehomed to another foster home."
3. Monitor the cats extremely closely
Michelle Furbacher from the Vancouver Catfe states that, "We'll be monitoring the cats' behaviour closely to make sure they are healthy and happy." That's important, because a cat's instinct is to hide signs of illness and stress. Cats' weights should be monitored daily when they are living in groups, as a few days of not eating can be deadly to cats, causing fatty liver disease. The cats' behaviors need to be monitored too; for both overt and subtle signs of stress, such as lack of sleeping, acting withdrawn or aggressive, overgrooming, hunched or tense body postures, and even non-stop purring, which in some cats is a response to pain or stress.
4. Monitor the humans closely, too
Ground rules are probably necessary. I would suggest:
- No one's allowed to pick cats up
- No roughhousing allowed
- You can only play with a cat by using a toy
- No pursuing a cat if its had enough and walks away