Cat cafes become cultural export

A woman plays with cats at a Cat Cafe in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, Russia, July 6, 2015.
PHOTO: Reuters

There's nothing quite like sitting down to a cup of tea with a cat on your lap. These days, with the advent of cat cafes, you don't even need your own cat to experience it. While they have been around in South Korea for some time, the rest of the world is beginning to catch on, and the trend that was once the cultural domain of Japan and Korea is spreading globally.

Although the first cat cafe was founded in Taiwan in 1998, the concept blossomed in Japan and Korea, particularly in the last decade.

The trend has reached new heights this year, with each week bringing news of a new cafe popping up.

Just last month, the United Arab Emirates' first cat cafe opened in Dubai. The owners, sisters Iman and Allaa Ahmed al-Aulaqi, got the idea from a friend who sent them pictures from a cafe in Korea.

"I first heard of the cat cafe concept about four or five years ago when a friend travelled to Japan. At the time, there was nothing like that available in the Western world," said Mike Jones, cofounder of the upcoming cafe The Cat Lounge in Auckland, New Zealand, alongside Vicky Chapman. It will be the first of its kind in the country.

Cat cafes only recently arrived in Oceania, with the first opening in Melbourne, Australia, last year. Having been responsible for the trend, it appears Korean expats are just as enthusiastic about the cafes. Jones noted that the second most common language spoken among their cafe's Facebook fans after English is Korean.

As developed countries face increasing urbanization and housing density, owning your own cat can be difficult. In these conditions, cat cafes provide an environment where people can relax and play with a pet, without having to worry about taking care of it full time. The business model also lends itself to social responsibility, as most cat cafe owners seek rescue cats when they adopt, and those interviewed stressed high standards for feline welfare.

After London's first cat cafe opened last year, demand warranted a second, with Ginger & Tom's set to open its doors in October. Anna Kogan Nasser, the owner, has travelled to a cat cafe in Hong Kong and hopes to visit one in Japan.

"Not everyone can afford to take care of an animal for the length of their life and as society becomes more developed and responsible towards pets, people realise this and don't rush into getting a pet as much as they used to. At the same time you can't take away that being around beautiful creatures like cats is soothing, fun and even has health benefits. The cat cafe fills a void in cities where people don't get to enjoy much nature, animals (or) peace."

Jones attributed the universal love of cat cafes to the simple fact that, "humans beings have had a long standing relationship with cats that spans hundreds of years. I don't see that changing anytime soon. We all love our cute furry companions."

In case cats are not your favourite animal, Korea offers opportunities to have a coffee among dogs, sheep, rabbits or even reptiles. Dog cafes are most popular in Korea with 191, followed by cat cafes at 78, according to the Korea Animal Rights Advocates.

Many of the animal cafes are concentrated in Seoul's Hongdae and Myeong-dong areas.