They've been a sensation in Japan since the early 2000s, but the first cat cafe, the Cat Flower Garden (now Cafe Dog and Cats) opened in Taipei in 1998. Because of strict housing rules, many dwellings in the Far East do not allow residents to have pets, causing them to seek out alternative sources of feline interaction—and the cat cafe was born. In the almost 20 years since, hundreds of cat cafes have popped up around the world, but the concept is most closely identified with Japan, where even one cafe (Hapi Neko) has its own manga that follows the cat inhabitants.
The Rules of Play
Most cafes share the same basic rules. Those include let the cats approach you first, don't wake up a sleeping cat (but taking photos with them is OK), turn off the flash when taking a photo, talk in soft voices and don't let the cats eat from your plate or drink from your cup.
Sanitizing your hands before interaction is a must; some cafes ask you to remove your shoes. Usually, children under 12 need to be accompanied by a parent or guardian when interacting with cats; some cafes require signing up for specific children's hours.
The fee for admittance into the cat area is usually $10 an hour or less, and some cafes run specials on time in addition to food and drinks.
"This is the cats’ home and we are just visiting it," said Kristen Castillo, who founded Portland, Oregon-based Purringtons Cat Lounge with her husband, Sergio. "Always respect the kitties and pay attention to our set of rules. At Purringtons, we require children to be over the age of 8 years old. We get some disappointed folks in that haven’t checked our website and are not aware of this. In this space, cats rule the roost and it’s all about their well-being."
Benjamin Kalb, founder of NYC's Koneko, expands upon this advice. "Relax. Be gentle. Respect the kitties. Have fun," he said.
Most cat cafes feature 8-12 cats who live at the cafe full time until they are adopted.
"We average 10-12, but during 'kitten season' we have up to 22 cats," said San Francisco-based Kit Tea founder Courtney Hatt.
Hours and Events
Most cat cafes are divided into zones, such as the cafe, cat lounge, and in some cases, patio. For the well-being of the cats, the number of humans allowed into cat zones is limited, so in general, making reservations ahead of time is a good idea. It's advised to inquire about availability if you have a large group. Weekends tend to be busier than weekdays, so if you plan to do a walk-in visit, know that you're likely to get in to see the cats more quickly on a weekday.
Cats love midday siestas and most cat cafes cater to this by closing off the lounge for cat naps between either 2-3 pm or 3-4 pm.
Also popular are the special events that have caught on—"meow"vie nights, yoga with cats, painting with cats and happy hour, to name a few.
"Cats pretty much make everything better. Especially when you're rolling around on the ground," said Castillo about Purringtons' cat yoga experience.
Koneko has taken the cat cafe event schedule to a new level, with Japanese-inspired activities such as sake tastings, Japanese cooking classes and karaoke. It also holds a Kitty Brunch on Thursday and Friday mornings where you can enjoy homemade waffles with some special feline company.
Where to Find the Closest Cat Cafe
In addition to those listed above, visit Meow Parlour, New York City's first cat cafe, and Brooklyn Cat Cafe, the borough's first in NYC. Discover a "purr"isian-style cat cafe, Bienvenue a Le Cat Cafe, in Philadelphia.
A number of cat cafes can be found in Canada: in Montreal, visit Cafe Chat L'Hereux (Happy Cat) and Le Cafe de Chats; in Vancouver, discover the Catfe; in Toronto, TOT The Cat Cafe; and in Quebec, Cafe Felin Ma Langue Aux Chats and Siberian Cat Cafe, the world's first hypoallergenic cat cafe, as the Siberian breed has a reputation for being good for those with allergies.
Setting up Shop in North America
New York City's Koneko ("kitten" in Japanese) draws its inspiration from the aforementioned Japanese cafes; it's America's first cat cafe to have a sake bar, an artisanal Japanese-inspired menu and hosts a number of weekly events with a nod to the celebration of cats and Japanese culture.
"Who doesn't like cats? They are hilarious, inventive, independent and beautiful creatures," said Kalb. "When I was developing Koneko, I traveled to Japan (which has the highest number of cat cafes by an order of magnitude) and visited more than 30 cat cafes in four cities. The intention was to see a range of cat cafes, to observe what works well (and what doesn't), and to find inspiration."
It struck in discovering Japan's rich cultural landscape.
"Japan is endlessly fascinating and very autonomous culturally," said Kalb. "They have all sorts of themed cafes, with cat cafes being one of the most recognizable. I love that the concept is feel-good at its heart and makes people happy. In Koneko's case, the cats are all up for adoption as well, which is very important to me."
Koneko's four-legged inhabitants come from the Anjellicle Cats Rescue, an organization that focuses on rescuing and adopting out cats and kittens in immediate danger of being euthanized. To date, about 75 have been adopted.
The features of Koneko's cattery were designed, first and foremost, with the cats in mind, said Kalb.
"The design is meant to facilitate people's interaction with the cats. A lot of the design planning was based on my own observations of my cats at home and their behavior," he said.
Kalb's muses are his cats Lewis and Clark, who are brothers, and Poe. For Castillo, it's Francine and Mystery, who were adopted from Purringtons, as well as Ace and Ollie.
"Our mission is to bring cats and people together, whether it's forever or just for an hour," said Castillo.
To date, Purringtons has sent 255 cats to forever homes.
"[Going to a cat cafe] is a great way to spend time with prospective adoptable cats in a living room-like environment rather than a cage you may see at a shelter," said Castillo.
"We connected with Cat Adoption Team because of their openness to our concept and their transparency," she added. "It's very important to us to have a partner who is just as invested in the well being of the cats as we are, and they have a stellar reputation. They accept kitties in from shelters all over the country who may have overflow issues, and we almost never experience a shortage of new cats as we adopt them out."
Castillo saw a video about cat cafes on a trip to Paris and fell in love with the concept. "After seeing the people coo over the cats and talk about 'purr therapy,' I just knew this would be something Portland would be receptive to," she said. "Petting and being with cats really is a form of therapy. Their presence can be cathartic and calming. Throw in a beer and a cheese plate and you have an experience."
Purringtons also carries gluten-free and vegan items for its customers.
Hatt's Kit Tea (the name being a nod to its Zen tea lounge) echoes Castillo's sentiments about making her space feel like a home.
"It's important that people and potential adopters are able to meet a cat in a space that feels like home," said Hatt. "Our environment was built with the cat's needs (and then some) met. The cats here are then calm, happy and healthy. When cats are kept in a cage in a shelter, they are often under-socialized, afraid and can display signs of distress that would make them seem unadoptable."
To Hatt, the most important feature was to have the highest quality air circulation system to help prevent upper respiratory infections in Kit Tea's cats.
"We also wanted floor-to-ceiling windows that receive the perfect amount of afternoon sun, since a cat's favorite pastime is to flop over and fall asleep in the afternoon sunlight,"Hatt said. "The last 'purrk' was to create a fun way for cats who like to hang up high to enjoy some nice nap and perching spots inside of our wall-mounted homes. All of these elements create a nice, relaxing, stress-free experience for our kitties."
Kit Tea has facilitated the adoption of 167 cats.