THE BLOG

Paws for Thought: Are Cat Cafes a Special New Home for Rescued Kitties or a Quirky New Commodity for Trendy Humans?

03/03/2015 16:18 GMT | Updated 28/04/2015 10:59 BST

Furry felines have left their paw print firmly on many aspects of society. Historically, cats were considered gods by the Ancient Egyptians who worshipped the ground they prowled on.

Jumping forward in time, cats have since come to rule the internet with key contenders - particularly the prefixed trio of Nyan Cat, Grumpy Cat and Keyboard Cat - raking up millions of YouTube views, inspiring best-selling books and films, and causing the need to create the full-time role of 'Meme manager' in the 21st century.

While cats and entertainment have become synonymous with each other, there is much more to them than this.

Like all domestic animals, cats need a loving and safe place to call home. Animal psychologist Dr David Sands estimates that of the 8 million cats that are kept as pets in the UK, around 1/4 of them will have been rescued, adopted and given a new 'forever home.'

The experience in the meantime for these 2 million cats waiting in local cat shelters for indefinite amounts of time is stressful for them as well as undeniably sad.

Despite best intentions, the bottom line is that cat shelters have limited space. Cat shelters in London in particular face a tricky situation. As the population increases - to a record 8.6 million as recently reported by Boris Johnson - surely so do the chances of willing cat owners living in the vicinity.

However, the unsociable working hours, long commutes and strict renting landlords which often accompany residents of the capital mean pets are not a viable option in their lives. There may be hundreds of different centres in and around London but even one of its leading organisations, the Mayhew Animal Home, only has room for 150 cats.

The worry is for what happens when these spaces run out, especially when annual RSPCA reports reluctantly admit some perfectly healthy cats are put down simply because there is nowhere else for them to go.

Or is there?

It seems there is for some in the fairly unexpected, very unconventional form of a café.

Lady Dinah's Cat Emporium opened in Shoreditch in March 2014 and is a forever home to 10 rescue cats which were previously staying at Mayhews. Set up by Lauren Pears, a self-proclaimed "animal lover first, business owner second," it is currently the only cat café in the UK.

The announcement of the café has been met with both excitement and doubt from the public as to whether they are a good place for our country's abandoned cats.

I visited Lady Dinah's to take a look for myself. The basic and fair ground rules were laid out as I entered: wash your hands, don't pick up the cats, don't disturb them while they sleep, and don't chase them around.

Walking through the door, I am greeted by tender calls for "Peeeeeetra." Petra is one of the cats who lives here now. She is a clear favourite amongst both staff and customers, with all eyes avidly on her as she strolls across the room to a large exercise wheel.

A member of staff follows and tries to tempt her to take a walk in the wheel, much to the excitement of the camera-poised customers. This first impression wasn't ideal at disproving opinions that the café is artificially constructed to satisfy human amusement.

One-time visitor James Walworth from Reading said: "The whole thing, inevitably, is more about the feelings we get from playing with cats rather than cats living a full cat-like existence. One cat was trained to do flying leaps after a lure, another was running in a treadmill. This was like being in a circus."

Novelty events such as cat yoga and valentines 'dates' also appear to commodify the cats but on the same hand, the genuinely useful 'Learn pet first aid with us' sessions work to balance this out.

The café itself is also equipped for cats in a more solitary mood. There are high perches which the cats can climb on away from all the fuss of the floor; there are adorably sized cat beds positioned next to or over radiators; and there is quiet background music which gives Lady Dinah's a cosy atmosphere that the cats seem very comfortable in - all of which the £6 service charge per customer goes towards maintaining.

It is obvious why the staff members have been employed - they clearly adore the cats. Xenia Koppen, originally from Australia but now living in Hove, has visited the café a few times and advised: "You just need to go to see how respectful they are of the cats."

They never fail to talk to the cats as they pass between collecting cups and plates, whether it be a considerate, "How you doing buddy?" or a surprisingly playful, "Butt slaps!"

Donnie, one of the ginger cats, likes to push his rear in the air and enjoy a few palm pats there, another member of staff tells the crowd. Though people seem tentative to try this advice for themselves, presumably not wanting to overstep any boundaries that might upset the cats or staff.

Regular Lady Dinah's visitor Christina Malcolm from Clapham said: "They're extremely strict about how the patrons treat the cats. A worker is always standing nearby and ensuring the rules are not broken."

The staff are also protective and defensive over their cats. While people are encouraged to engage with the café on social media - perfectly set up by the impeccably Instagram-able surroundings and the Twitter handles given to each of the cats (Persian-tabby Wookie takes the lead with 700 followers) - to provide feedback, the staff have been known to give some of their own when it comes to complaints about the cats' innately snoozy nature.

Towards the end of its opening month, Lady Dinah's posted the following statement on Facebook: "A cats behaviour is variable, just like ours. They get in bad moods, they need rest breaks, they are living breathing creatures with wills and needs of their own.

"We can not guarantee if they will be asleep or awake when you visit, but we can guarantee that the cafe will be quiet, peaceful, and there will be cats wandering freely through the cafe area, behaving as cats do."

Browsing through past reviews, the odd comment of disappointment can be found. Rozinka wrote on Trip Advisor: "My friend and I were looking forward to interacting with the cats, however they weren't interested. They did their own thing and didn't care."

Another from Carrie163 reads: "One young member of staff was lovely and talked about the cats with real affection, encouraging people to feed them treats. Another member of staff was rather grumpy and seemed to be over keenly watching everyone's every move."

I must admit the staff did focus their attention on the wellbeing of the cats rather than my own as my empty plates remained in front of me, but I must also make it clear that that is not a complaint, actually quite the opposite.

Lady Dinah's may be the only cat café currently in the UK but it was not the first. Totnes Cat Café opened in Devon in 2013 but was forced to shut one year later as the owner became to ill to manage it. Jo Buckland visited Totnes at the time and now mourns its loss.

She said: "It was a lot better than Lady Dinah's. It felt a lot more relaxed. I think the cats were not left on the premises overnight [as they are at Lady Dinah's]. I feel Lady Dinah's is more about making money than cat welfare."

However, there is one piece of evidence that seriously stacks up against this. Last September, Lady Dinah's rehomed one of their cats, Indiana, to a family home following careful monitoring of his behaviour. The statement on their Facebook page reads: "Indiana has always been the more gentle and solitary of our cats. We felt he was a little weary of colony life.

"It became pretty clear that he loved people but not other cats. We concluded that Indiana wanted to be a housecat and live with a family who could spoil him with cuddles and affection. We have found him a new home with wonderful people, and he moved in last night."

Lady Dinah's has sparked an interest in starting a cat café trend. Brighton, almost predictably, is looking to replicate its parent town, with plans to build Koneko - Japanese for 'kitten' - by summer 2015.

But these plans have not been met with the same support Lady Dinah's received from Mayhews. Brighton City Cat Shelter (CCS), which has room for 250 cats, was contacted by Koneko organisers last year but CCS owner Michael Tully has refused to be associated with it.

Michael said: "After some discussion with my volunteers and family we decided to not get involved. We decided that it was our responsibility and our raison d'être to find forever homes for our cats and not to put them in a commercial environment where we did not have control of the situation. Our responsibility is to our cats and it is stressful enough for them to have to live in the shelter."

Brighton resident James Howlett has found himself caught in the middle when it comes to which side of the argument he supports, as he has both visited and enjoyed Lady Dinah's experience yet has adopted a cat called Trouble from CCS last year.

He said: "My position on Lady Dinah's is clear. At the same time, I trust Michael's decision. It's not about whether the concept is correct, it's about the application."

The leading concern taken from the popularity of Lady Dinah's, evident from the almost impossible task of making a reservation within that same month of booking, is that the cafés will turn into a fad opening up across the country at a rate quicker than ethical and legal regulators can keep up with.

Brighton cat owner Corry Shaw said: "My worry is about the cafés that open as part of this new trend that maybe aren't as strict. I'd be happier with [Koneko] if it was independently regulated with spot checks."

Lizzy Rinder, who works at CCS, is "totally opposed" to cat cafés in general. She said: "It's true to say that at the shelter the cats live in a communal group but there's always the choice of privacy and seclusion if they wish it. New cats are kept confined until their state of health is established and also to get them accustomed to their new way of life.

"Cats in a café have a far more precarious existence.

"There's no denying that a cuddle with a cat is good for the volunteer as well as for the cat and we develop good relationships with them over time. But to rent a cuddle? It doesn't seem a good idea to me, for cat or human."

Naturally, there will be some people who just don't like the cat café idea on principle and nothing can really be done to change that. But cat owner Lauren Wilcocks, who has recently offered to volunteer at CCS, may attempt to introduce a more positive outlook in the shelter. She said: "It may not be the perfect place for cats as we know them but actually I think cats are very sociable, complex creatures and so I don't think anyone can definitively say that a cat would not be happy there.

"If they are being fed and loved and are occupied, I don't consider this a bad place for a cat, regardless of whether people are drinking coffee in the same vicinity."

It is undeniable that cats make people happy. From studies at Hiroshima University that claim watching cats can improve productivity, to the passers-by outside Lady Dinah's that can't help but express their pleasant surprise at the kitties in the window and end up grinning like one of their own.

But whether those same cats are happy looking out from the inside will always divide opinion.