With animal employment rates on the rise, Japanese officials are now stepping in to regulate animal cafes. Citing new Animal Protection Laws, authorities are especially cracking down on 24-hour cat cafes. Makes you wonder: Where’s a nocturnal cat to go for a cuppa?

While you’d think a cat cafe would be a place where you’d find kitties chatting over a warm latte, this is not the case. Instead, the cafes provide cats as human companions. Since cats prefer to lie down when they socialize, a cat cafe is more like a regular coffee or tea house with kitty pelts draped over surfaces like live decorations. These cats are considered “staff.”

With such a service-oriented feline staff, it makes you wonder if cat cafes weren’t born from the “snack” bars in Japan, where women provide company for men who come in to their establishment for a drink. Like snack bars, most customers (although not all) come to interact with the staff. As a result, the emphasis is not on the food and drinks at these cafes, but on relaxing in the company of gorgeous felines. Stroking, petting and playing are all acceptable and expected behaviors by guests (who can’t seem to keep their hands off them).

The animals offer another service as well — animal therapy. Pets are proven to calm people’s minds and to generally aid mental health. This makes cats easily employable since no training is required. Most cat cafes have anywhere from 10 to 20 feline staff. Wages are notoriously low (after all, the cats spend most of their time sleeping on the job), but these cafe positions offer highly competitive benefits packages.

Reportedly, 80,000 dogs and 200,000 abandoned cats are destroyed every year in Japan. Another 200 to 300 rabbits are set free (the number even higher in years immediately following a year of the rabbit in the Chinese calendar cycle). So the cafes are helping these animals off the streets. Most are happy to work, even if it means some occasional overtime petting or cuddling.

While dog cafes were the first to break onto the cafe market in the late 1990s, cat cafes exploded onto the scene after the entrepreneurial feline Tama became the stationmaster cat of Wakayama Electric Railway Co.’s Kishi Station, in January 2007. (Tama-related merchandise grossed ¥27 million that year). Tama became an instant role model for young, career-minded felines wishing to capitalize on a very niche market: humans who fawn over animals.

“Cats’ charming personalities and calm dispositions are key to creating the cafe atmosphere,” says Filina, a therapy cat and one of 21 feline staff at Neko no jikan (Cat Time), a cafe in Osaka. “We offer a quiet place with a focus on relaxing with cats.” Humans pay from ¥840 to ¥1,050 per hour to be with the felidae.

While the cats are on the ground running the show at the cafes, the establishments are owned by humans who do the bookkeeping, cleaning and food handling, as humans are known to be very finicky in these areas.

With approximately 150 cat cafes nationwide, it is said that cats are edging out dogs in their level of business acumen. Rabbit and bird cafes are also reportedly on the rise, indicating that cats have inspired generations of other animals who never imagined they could make it in the human world.

Fears that animals will be exploited have prompted the moves to regulate the industry. Officials worry that 24-hour cafes will be too demanding on the cats, who may be forced to work long hours. In addition, they also worry that cafe owners may force their animal staff into unsavory practices such as cats prowling the all-night cafes, dogs hounding cafe patrons, or birds working in seedy, back-alley cafes.

But most cafes are run by scrupulous animal lovers. The humans teach their customers how to properly pick up the animals, and signs instruct “Do not disturb sleeping animals.” Neko no Jikan has a break room for the cats on the second floor where staff can go when they’ve had enough of the clientele. Cat Cafe Calico in Tokyo instructs customers to wash and disinfect their hands before handling the cats.

Portencia, a Russian Blue who, like most feline staff members goes by just one name, says that her boss at Cat Cafe Calico puts scarves on the kittens to show they should not be held. Light petting, however, is OK. “Our boss is also preparing a place for our retirement to ensure we have a place to go when we get older,” she said. In case you’re wondering, the retirement age for cats is 8-10 years old.

What needs to be regulated is not the cafes but the treatment of the animals working in those cafes. The animals must be assured just wages and reasonable working hours. If treated poorly, surely the patrons would be the first to report such cases to authorities.

Animal cafes can also play an educational role by promoting animal welfare. They can sell books on pet care and sponsor animal shelters where people can adopt their own companion if they decide they want one at home.

With the increasing employability of the animal kingdom, I look forward to more entrepreneurial animals promoting their species with these clever cafes. Perhaps soon we’ll have fish cafes (vegetarian only), lizard lounges (small scale) and giraffe tea houses (with enforced ceiling height regulations,of course).

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