Japanese cat cafés spread to the Continent

Kelly O'Mara
Japanese cat cafés spread to the Continent

Cat cafes — long popular in Japan — have finally come to the rest of the world, or at least to Vienna.

Café Neko (Japanese for "cat") opened a few months ago in Austria as the first cat café in Europe. Along with the usual drinks and pastries, cat cafés offer a chance to pet and play with some feline friends.

"One of our goals is to provide happiness to some people who cannot have cats on their own," said owner Takako Ishimitsu in an interview after the opening.

Ishimitsu is originally from Japan, where such establishments have been growing in popularity since the mid-2000s, reportedly as a result of pet bans in most apartments. On the crowded island nearly all apartment buildings won't allow cats or dogs and some children have never petted one of the animals.

There are now close to 40 cat cafés in the Land of the Rising Sun, which often feature six to 12 cats who roam the space, crawl into baskets, and play with visitors. The first café opened in 2004 in Osaka and other animal cafés, such as shops with rabbits, have followed. Customers typically pay $9-12 an hour, in addition to purchasing any food or drinks, to pet, play with, or just watch the animals.

However, animal welfare groups have raised a few concerns about the establishments, claiming that the cats are stressed by the excessive attention, and hygiene is not up to code.

In Japan, a new animal protection law went into effect in June placing an 8 p.m. curfew on the cats, so they'd be allowed to rest. Many of the cafés, however, were most popular in the late-night hours after work, and owners are worried about the future of their furry bars.

In Vienna, Ishimitsu spent three years convincing officials that the place would be hygienic and up to code. Customers at cafés are commonly required to wash their hands and allow the cats to sleep. The cats in Café Neko can retreat to hanging baskets when the love and attention get to be too much.

At Café Neko, the four-legged guests all have names — Moritz, Luca, Haru, Momo, Sonia and Thomas — and their own distinct personalities. The pets have largely come from rescue shelters, though Haru and Momo were found in a basket in the park.

You can sit and watch them play while sipping a coffee or try to lure the friendly one (Sonia) into your lap while you snack. Who doesn't feel better with a cat in their lap?

There's just one hard and fast rule: absolutely no dogs.