National / Social Issues

Cat cafes facing more scrutiny as owners' top priority not always felines, experts say

by Sophie Jackman

Kyodo

The prospect of an afternoon of relaxation in the company of fluffy, purring friends has earned cat cafes a top spot on the itineraries of visitors to Japan, but not all operators have the interests of their feline employees in mind, animal experts warn.

The decision by Tokyo authorities on April 21 to order a cat cafe in the capital to close for 30 days due to animal neglect has focused global scrutiny on the establishments, which let customers sit and play with multiple cats in shared rooms for an hourly fee.

“(The shuttered Tokyo cafe) illustrates the potential for cafes to simply become places of abuse and neglect with no benefit to society or cats,” said Maho Cavalier at Animal Walk Tokyo, an animal rescue nonprofit organization.

The Environment Ministry is moving to revise animal welfare regulations governing cat cafes based on the results of a study it conducted last October on a sample of 314 cafes nationwide.

From June, cafes will permanently be able to open until 10 p.m., and cats’ “shifts” will be allowed to run up to 12 hours a day, as long as they can escape to a customer-free rest space at any time.

A 12-hour shift seems excessive given what is known about cats, solitary hunters by nature, said Nai Machiya, 42, a veterinary inspector with the Japan Animal Welfare Society.

As for the government study of stress levels in cafe cats, “We have no way of knowing if the sample is representative of all cafes in Japan, or if it leans toward the better cafes,” Machiya said.

In the study, 55 percent of respondent cafes housed 11 or more cats on the premises, and 82 percent were open for eight hours or longer each day.

“Living with multiple cats and having people pet them for over eight hours, you can imagine the level of stress on these cats,” said Animal Walk Tokyo’s Cavalier.

The Tokyo cafe shut down by authorities had let cats breed uncontrollably, resulting in 62 cats living in a space that had permission for just 10. Hygiene suffered accordingly, with most of the cats displaying common cold symptoms when inspectors visited.

Such a situation would be unthinkable at the Asakusa Nekoen cat cafe elsewhere in Sumida Ward, where the rescued cats are all spayed or neutered, according to owner and operator Takako Saito, 46.

“When they arrive, we don’t force them to interact with people straight away but keep them in cages for an absolute minimum of two weeks,” Saito said. “Some cats can take as long as a month and a half to recover from their previous circumstances.”

The first cat cafes are thought to have opened in Taiwan in the late 1990s. The trend soon spread to Japan’s dense cities, where many landlords bar renters from keeping pets and stressful working lives lead people to seek the relief the furry creatures provide.

Cat cafes have spread beyond East Asia to other regions including Europe and North America in recent years. Saito said a popular culture boom in cats has seen the number of cafes in Japan grow rapidly, with around 100 now operating in Tokyo alone. But those in the business for mainly financial reasons are prone to taking shortcuts with the animals’ care, he added.

“When you care about the cats, you don’t see them as a money-making product first and foremost. You give the cats plenty of hiding spots and you don’t disturb a sleeping cat to make it play with customers,” she said.

Saito said the neglect at some cafes is indicative of attitudes toward pets in Japan — something that must change in order to see the animals as family members for life rather than as dispensable products.

According to a 2015 survey by the Japan Pet Food Association, the average life span of a cat kept indoors in the country is 16.4 years, but like humans they require increased medical attention as they age and tend to become less active.

Industry sources have suggested less scrupulous cat cafes sell the animals once they pass 6 or 7 years years old to replace them with kittens, without thoroughly vetting the new owners.

Some argue the concept of cat cafes is intrinsically bad for the animals and reinforces societal attitudes that view pets as entertainment rather than companions.

But with the trend unlikely to go away any time soon, there are measures visitors to Japan can take to select cafes that are kinder toward felines.

“If a cafe is looking for lifelong adoptive homes for cats, that’s an indication that they’re concerned more about animal welfare than about just making money,” cafe operator Saito said.

“A large proportion of mixed-breed cats, as opposed to just pure breeds that are sold at pet shops, is another good sign,” she said.

Veterinary inspector Machiya said customers should judge cafes by the cats’ physical condition and the presence of adequate space, and report any concerns to animal charities or authorities.

“We’d like people who decide to visit cat cafes to pay attention to the smell of the place and the condition of the cats’ fur, as well as whether there is mucus coming from their noses or eyes,” she said.

While a stable home is the ideal environment for a cat, well-run cafes can serve an important function in a country where animals that are not adopted quickly are often euthanized by local authorities.

“If cat cafes can reach people who had little previous interest in looking after cats and match cats with adoptive homes, they can be of significant merit to society,” Machiya said.

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