Cat cafés in Singapore: boon or bane for cats?

Cats relax together at Cat Café Neko no Niwa. (Photo courtesy of Cat Café Neko no Niwa)

With the recent furore over Singapore's Cuddles Cat Café and the many "crimes" against its cats and staff that owner Jonathan Tan has admitted to, it's worth asking if and how cat cafés are beneficial or detrimental to the felines. While cat cafe owners are all passionate animal lovers and owners themselves and work very hard to ensure the viability of their business, the spotlight on Cuddles Cat Cafe has shown that apart from ensuring that they are disease-free and vaccinated properly, cats also need to have enough space for movement, areas for proper rest and enough time away from curious onlookers as well as other cats.

Yahoo Singapore reporter JEANETTE TAN speaks to the owners of the four cafés still in operation, amid ongoing Agri-food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) investigations into the now-closed Cuddles Cat Café's business practices, to understand how each of them work.

Before last year, not many people in Singapore had ever heard of animal cafés — where customers buy a drink, pay an admission fee, and spend an hour or two mingling with roaming animals living there.

After experiencing various types of pet cafés in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Thailand, Singaporean cat lovers and entrepreneurs have brought the cat café concept here. Even as pet ownership and animal-related businesses like this grow in popularity in Singapore, though, the incident involving Cuddles Cat Café reflects how important it is to conduct one's business ethically.

1) The Company of Cats

Part of the interaction area at The Company of Cats, a cat café in Singapore. (Yahoo photo)

Located in Chinatown on the second floor of a row of shophouses, the nine cats, which will soon grow to 12, housed onsite were given space to roam, a spacious attic and back area to rest and hide from the crowd. There were also strict rules in place banning visitors from picking the cats up, feeding them any food or attempting to rouse them from their sleep.

Its owner, Tay Shuyun, said her cats — all of whom were adopted or rescued — were fed three times a day, with a mix of wet and dry food, with some additional dry food left out at night. All the staff she hired, she said, she employed with great care and caution, ensuring that nearly all of them have had ample experience with cats.

Tay, 26, a longtime animal-owner and cat shelter volunteer who says she is present at the café every day, from morning till night, also takes the time to train new staff in each task, stressing that it is a gradual process that takes time and patience on the part of her eight employees, most of whom are part-timers.

Cats gather at an area in The Company of Cats. (Yahoo photo)

"Over time, they learn and understand (the cats') personalities," she said. "These things can't be learned in a book. They come from working here, spending time here and taking the initiative to find out more about cats, and about these cats in particular."

Tay also ensures that at any one time there are always at least three staff to keep an eye on visitors to ensure they do not flout the rules.

"In some cafés in other countries, they actually implement fines for violating any of the rules," she said. "But we believe more in education instead of fining or punishing them; that's why I started this — to educate people about cats and how to care for them," she added.

Additionally, she sees her cat café as an opportunity to take in cats that are abandoned by irresponsible owners or from overcrowded animal shelters, which would otherwise be put down despite being healthy, although she stresses that she works with trusted adopters and fosterers to very carefully ensure that they are of the right personality to be comfortable living communally.

2) Meomi Cat Café

The inside interaction area of Meomi Cat Café. (Photo courtesy of Meomi Cat Café)

Over at this hole-in-the-wall located beside Haji Lane, owner Edwin Tan tells Yahoo Singapore that he keeps the number of cats he has at his café small — just seven, six of which he bought from a pet shop and one rescued — in order to ensure that he can attend to their needs better.

He hires two full-time staffers and four part-timers, whom he has trained in basic operational tasks like disinfection and grooming — although he says he does it most of the time, either before or after the café opens.

The 31-year-old cat owner of 14 years, too, has rules in place against feeding, carrying or rousing cats from their sleep, although he admits balancing the wants of customers who come to interact with the cats and the needs of the animals is sometimes not an easy task.
"I would say some gentle patting is all right; after all the customers pay to spend time with the cats — if they are asleep they tend to feel like they're 'not getting their money's worth'," he said. "It's tough sometimes to strike a balance."

His felines, of a variety of breeds, are all young, though, ranging from 10 months to a year and four months old, sharing that he is likely to retire them to his own home or those of his staff by the time they turn six or seven years old.

3) Cat Café Neko no Niwa

Singapore's first cat café opened on Christmas day last year and co-owner Tan Sue Lynn said she was motivated by the desire to share the joy of cat ownership with people, especially those who are not allowed to keep cats at home.

"We have 13 cats in the café and they were all adopted from different rescuers, fosterers and previous owners," she told Yahoo Singapore, adding that her café in Boat Quay not only bans feeding — not even portions of their own kibble meals — but also does not sell cat treats.

While she does not designate feeding times for her cats, Tan says she and her staff put out a "limited but sufficient quantity" of dry food at the café to prevent over-eating, while weighing and tracking their felines each month to ensure there are no unusual spikes or dips.

The open area in Cat Café Neko no Niwa. (Photo courtesy of Cat Café Neko no Niwa)
A veterinarian speaking at a cat owner workshop run at Cat Café Neko no Niwa. (Photo courtesy of Joyce Fang / Cat Café Neko no Niwa)

Like Tay, Neko no Niwa's Tan voiced her firm belief that cat cafés should educate people on how cats should be respected, approached and cared for. To this end, she runs cat care workshops on nutrition, grooming and cat behaviour for cat owners at her café as well.

Tan also stresses the importance of properly training her 10 part-time staff, among whom is even a vet technician.

"All staff should be on the same page for cleaning, feeding and grooming regimes," she said. "Training is important because at the end of the day, every cat is different, and might need to be handled in some special way." 

4) The Cat Café

The expansive interaction area at The Cat Café, where its 14 cats are allowed to roam. (Photo courtesy of The Cat Café)

The Cat Café in Bugis Village, which currently houses 14 adopted cats, goes beyond the mandate to adopt, not buy — even instituting its own adopt-a-cat programme, in partnership with Kittycare Haven, a local cat shelter. One of its co-founders, Jefferson Soh, tells Yahoo Singapore he is happy to facilitate the adoption of cats from his café in order to allow him to rescue more from overcrowded shelters.

"We have always supported adoption of cats instead of purchasing them be it for home or commercial purposes — especially when there are a few thousand cats in shelters waiting for a new home," he said. Like the others, he enforces rules barring customers from carrying or feeding cats, in line with rules set by cat cafés around the world.

Mealtime at The Cat Café, where each feline has his own individual bowl to facilitate closer monitoring of their diets. (Photo courtesy of The Cat Café)

Like at The Company of Cats, Soh says The Cat Café feeds its felines three times a day, and a mix of wet and dry food. Each cat has its own bowl to ensure that their diet can be monitored closely, he adds.

Soh also hires a total of seven part-time staff and three full-timers, apart from himself and his co-founder, Candice Neo, making sure that they are personally trained by either him or Neo in cat handling, especially if they lack experience with cats. His main requirement, he says, is either that they have experience with cats or with food preparation.

More regulation needed: vets

Cuddles Cat Café's store front, located on the third floor of *Scape youth mall. (Yahoo file photo)

When asked about cat cafés here, vets whom Yahoo Singapore spoke to say they're not opposed to the idea, but feel more regulation is needed to ensure they are properly run, in order to prevent the mistreatment of cats.

One vet, who wanted to be known as Dr Lim, said the time that café cats spend in contact with humans should be limited and cat-initiated, meaning the cat should approach the customer and not the other way round.
"Some cats are more sociable than others, so knowledge of the individual cat's personality is important," she said.
Dr Lim, who's been practicing animal medicine for four years, also noted that because kittens have poorer immune systems, young ones should not be allowed in cafés because they are more susceptible to diseases. Should cats fall sick, she added, they must be brought to a vet immediately, and an ideal situation would see cats segregated into small groups to reduce stress as well as the chance of a disease spreading among them.
"Personally, I do not object to (cat cafés) if they are properly run... (but) I definitely think more regulation is needed," she said.
Renowned animal doctor Jean-Paul Ly, resident vet of the Animal Recovery Centre, said the cat cafe concept is "an excellent" one, but agreed with Dr Lim in saying the issue is more around licensing to ensure that the welfare of the cafés' resident cats is protected.
"It' important to ensure that cats at these cafés are under veterinary supervision," he said, pointing out that unlike with dogs, cat diseases are less known and not all infections or diseases can be vaccinated against.


Are cat cafés good for cats? (Photo courtesy of The Cat Café)

Cat cafés can indeed be good for both cats and people in Singapore, as they provide new spaces to relieve cat shelters that are overcrowded and educate customers and cat lovers in healthy cat behaviour. It can also give those who cannot keep cats at home a chance to interact with them.

However, as seen with Cuddles Cat Café, not all owners might be first and foremost concerned about the welfare of their resident felines. What's needed, therefore, is a comprehensive cat café licence that levels strictly-enforced and closely-monitored regulations ensuring the health of their cats and proper evaluations of their suitability for communal café living and more. Thankfully, as the owners of Neko no Niwa and The Company of Cats have confirmed, the AVA is indeed working on one.