Cat cafés. You may have never heard of them but several opened in Canada last year, joining what looks like a global trend that’s about to take off.
A cat café is a place to observe and pet cats while sipping a coffee or tea and eating a light meal or snack. As well as regular café furniture such as tables, chairs, and couches, there are catwalks, play structures for the cats to climb, and cubbies for them to sleep or rest in.
The cat café phenomenon started in Taipei, Taiwan, in 1998, and has blossomed in Japan over the last 10 years. European cities like Paris, Vienna, and London have recently joined the trend.
On this side of the pond, Canada jumped in as a leader, with Le Café des Chats in Montreal becoming the first cat café in North America when it opened last August. Café Chat l’Heureux (Happy Cat), also in Montreal, opened shortly after. Toronto and Vancouver have a couple each and there are also quite a few in the U.S.
Cat cafés are not just for the cat fanatic. They provide a relaxing experience for those who want a breather from the daily loop. Petting a cat can have a beneficial effect as it makes one feel contented and connected to another living being, especially when that amazing purr starts up.
Studies have shown that the animal/human connection can lower blood pressure and elevate mood. Animal therapy using cats and dogs is now used for a variety of treatments like post-operative recovery, depression, and socialization of people with autism.
Cat cafés are a great option for those who can’t have a pet in their home because of rental restrictions or allergies in family members. The cafés are stocked with resident cats that are sociable and accustomed to meeting many humans on a daily basis.
There are various types of cat cafés. Some establishments charge for a set time of interacting with the cats, while some just charge for coffee and food and let you stay for as long as you want. Cafés that get cats from shelters or feline rescue groups may offer them for adoption.
Of course, there are certain rules when interacting with the cats, and staff are vigilant about protecting both cats and clients. For example, feeding of the cats is not allowed; customers must wash their hands before entering the cat area; the cats can’t be picked up; and sleeping cats shouldn’t be woken up.
Setting up a cat café is not as easy as a regular café. Each city has bylaws about food prep and serving food around animals. The kitchen needs to be separate, and the cat handling room must also be separate from the café proper. Most places let customers take food and drinks into the cat play area if they so choose.
Hypoallergenic Cat Café
For those who are allergic to cats, Michael Lebrun and wife Natalie opened Café Chat Sibérien this summer in Chelsea, Que., a small town about 13 kilometres outside of Ottawa.
Lebrun is a cat lover who discovered he was allergic to cats when he was 5 years old and had to give away his first pet. Learning about Siberian cats was a turning point for him. The Siberian cat has long hair but it produces less of the protein found in cat saliva and dander that causes allergic reactions. The couple now have a Siberian at home and seven more at the café, and he doesn’t react to them.
Lenrun says he and his wife “fell in love with the concept” of a cat café after visiting Le Café des Chats in Montreal last year.
“We just figured, OK, we make a cat café, but a special one with Siberian cats because Siberians are hypoallergenic, so the concept just started like that on the highway between Montreal and Gatineau,” he says.
Café Chat Sibérien is the first hypoallergenic cat café in the world, and people go there not only to relax with the cats but also because of the monsooned coffee that is processed in Quebec to make it rich in flavour and less bitter.
“Our coffee comes from Îles de la Madeleine (Magdalen Islands),” says Lebrun. “The green beans are put into salt water … and the beans are dried on the beach in the sun. After that the beans are roasted and it gives a little salty taste to the coffee and there’s less bitterness at the end.”
Japan remains the world leader in cat cafés, with over 200. But the trend is becoming increasingly popular in other countries, and Lebrun predicts it will continue to grow.
“My vision of cat cafes is like microbrewery 20 years ago,” he says. “I’m a beer lover and I like microbrewery beer, and 20 years ago there were one or two in Quebec and some in Canada. Now, there’s five microbreweries in every town and they have microbrewery tours. I figure it will be the same for cat cafes.”