Cat cafes and other niche businesses offering human-animal interactive experiences are tapping into Americans’ love of pets as well as something far deeper within the American psyche, experts say.
When Karen and Tom Gates lost their 17-year-old gray tabby, Ozzie, earlier this year, they were devastated.
Life without him has been an adjustment. A sense of loneliness soon crept in whenever Karen was alone in the couple’s Plumstead home.
Yet when they visited Bucks County’s first cat café during its opening weekend last month, it was more out of curiosity than grief.
“I couldn’t wait to go,” Karen said. “Kittens are so awesome and fun to play with and we hadn’t had a kitten for a long time.”
The Gates are among a growing demographic targeted by a fast-growing segment of the U.S. pet industry whose business model includes pet cafés, goat yoga, cow cuddling and horse hugging.
These businesses are capitalizing on Americans’ love of animals by offering interactive experiences in recreational and social settings. They’re also tapping into something far deeper within the American psyche, filling an emotional void in a society where FaceTime has replaced face-to-face time.
“People talk about the Zen of gardening. I think there is a peacefulness that comes with an interaction with an animal,” said Laura Houston, educational director at the Elmwood Park Zoo in Norristown, where visitors can buy tickets for a chance to feed farm animals, giraffes, bison and otters.
“I’ve never seen a person unhappy when interacting with an animal.”
Pet cafés, which first took root in Asia, are proliferating across the United States and now the Delaware Valley.
Their popularity is largely attributed to a combination of location — often, large cities where pet ownership is less practical — and target market — people looking to experience a sense of emotional well-being associated with companion animals.
Lorraine Plourde, an assistant professor of anthropology at SUNY Purchase who has studied the pet café phenomenon in Asia, sees interest in the cafés as a reaction to a growing sense of social disconnectedness and isolation.
“There is something about that direct, tactical contact,” she said. “No one is going to sit in a cat café with their headphones. It demands a kind of sociality. Businesses have tapped into that desire for that experience.”
A growing body of scientific research suggests that interaction with companion animals, such as horses, cats, dogs, birds and rabbits, have physical and mental health benefits.
It’s an activity that reduces cortisol levels, the stress hormone responsible for sleep disturbance and weight gain. Heart rates also drop, easing anxiety and lessening muscle tension while increasing the body’s production of feel-good hormones.
Plumstead residents Jeremy and Erin Williams have visited MeWow Cat café in Buckingham three times since it opened in early August. They usually spend a half hour during work lunch breaks or after work.
The couple started going to cat cafés when they lived in Seattle. First, it was out of curiosity, but soon they were regulars.
Both have high-pressure jobs. He is in the tech industry. She deals in loans.
“It’s just nice. It’s relaxing to have coffee and a muffin and pet some cats,” Jeremy said. “There is something that makes you feel really special when a cat comes and sits in your lap. You are the chosen one.”
The couple owned a cat before, but right now they’re not in a position to be pet parents, Erin said.
“But there is so much emotional enjoyment that can be gained from being around them,” Jeremy said. “It’s good for the soul.”
A safe place
Regina Jankowski cannot imagine life without her four birds: an umbrella cockatoo named Simone, a Senegal parrot named Obi, a white-bellied caique named Lexie, and a lesser sulfur crested cockatoo named Willow.
The Palmyra, New Jersey, resident said the birds provide her with emotional support for diagnoses of anxiety and PTSD. Each bird has its own personality and shows her affection. When she is upset, one of her cockatoos will spread her wing over her face and tell her, “I love you,” she said.
“They will hold you. They will hug you,” she said. “They don’t understand they are different than humans.”
She also couldn’t imagine her life without her black cat, Uhura. Until last year.
A fire in the twin home attached to hers spread, destroying it. Jankowski was able to escape with her four birds, but Uhura ran and hid. Police at the scene refused to let her back inside to get her cat, who was later found dead behind a bedroom door.
The loss of her home and her cat left Jankowski in a dark place emotionally, she said. She and the birds had to move into an apartment, a dramatic change in their routines; her emotional stress started affecting the health one of her cockatoos, Willow, who became seriously ill.
Jankowski was drowning in the depths of depression when she discovered PURRsonal Space, a cat “lounge” within walking distance of her new apartment.
There, she met Kyo, one of the adoptable cats. He quickly became her confidant, she said.
“I pretty much lived there. I could cry to Kyo, and just sob. He didn’t care,” Jankowski said. “He was my own personal therapist. I would tell him everything. I would cry and tell him how I felt. He would purr and kiss me.”
She started spending more and more time at the cat lounge. She’d crochet blankets for the cats there.
Jankowski described herself as an introvert, but felt comfortable being around other people at the lounge. It was her safe place, she said.
“No matter who came in, they loved cats. Cat people, it’s like when I go to Comic-Con, you are among a lot of people, but they’re your people,” she said. “It was the best situation I could hope for to come out of that.”
The same could be said for Sara, a 12-year-old diluted tortie that Jankowski met there.
“The second I saw her, you know, it just clicked,” she said. “I could see so much pain in her, and I was like, ‘Little girl, I know your pain.’”
On the six-month anniversary of the fire that changed her life, Jankowski moved into her new home, which is near the cat lounge. That same day she adopted Sara.
“She just relaxes me,” she said. “I can’t imagine sleeping without petting her.”
In its first year operating in the shadow of the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge, PURRsonal Space Cat Lounge has adopted three dozen homeless cats, owner Lori Genstein said.
Eight adoptable cats currently live at the lounge, which is open Fridays through Sundays and charges $10 to $15 an hour to play with the cats, which mostly come from the Burlington County Animal Shelter, Genstein said. The lounge also runs educational and recreational programs, including yoga classes that include cats, she said.
Among her first adoption was a man named Ed, who regularly bought lottery tickets at the convenience store next door, Genstein said. He would stand in front of the bay window watching the cats in the weeks before the business opened.
One day, Genstein invited him in.
Ed proceeded to pour his heart out, she said. His cat had died and he was also the caretaker for a chronically ill partner.
“He had no one to talk to,” said Gernstein, who also owns a pet-sitting business.
In a 20-year study, researchers found that cat owners had a lower risk of dying of a heart attack compared to non-cat owners, according to the Journal of Vascular and Interventional Neurology. A Canadian study found companion animals alleviate loneliness, which can lead to serious health risks, especially among older adults.
According to the Washington, D.C.-based Human Animal Bonding Research Institute, research also suggest interacting with companion animal helps adults and children feel more outgoing.
Peggy Roberts has two cats at her Pitman, New Jersey, home, but at least once a month makes a 50-mile round trip so her 8-year-old son, Braedon can visit PURRsonal Space.
Braedon is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, a developmental disorder characterized by difficulty with social interaction and communication.
“I was thinking, I need this and I thought my son would too. I didn’t think I would love it as much as I do,” Roberts said. “It’s like therapy. Just speaking from my perspective it’s not easy to have a son with autism. It’s nice to just go there and be present. It’s very relaxing.”
Braedon has bonded with the resident cats, she added.
“My son, I think, feels very happy. I have so many pictures of him smiling and playing with the cats.”
Cat cafés and lounges like MeWow and PURRsonal Space have led the trend toward businesses promoting animal-human bonding experiences. The first cat café is generally believed to have opened 21 years ago in Taiwan, but they quickly gained a foothold in Japan before spreading across Europe. Pet cafés offering interaction with dogs, owls, rabbits and reptiles can now be found throughout Asia.
Five years ago the first U.S. cat café opened in California and recent unofficial estimates say there are fewer than 150 operating nationwide. Locally, at least a half-dozen cat cafés or lounges are advertised in the Philadelphia region.
The primary difference between the American and Asian cat café business models is the way they view the animals, SUNY’s Plourde said.
In Japan, the cats are seen as a product or employee, raising concern among animal rights movement about living conditions and treatment, Plourde said. North American cat cafés are typically run in partnership with animal shelters and rescues as off-site adoption centers, she said. Some shelter organizations also have tapped into the trend as a way to promote adoption and supplement operating budgets.
Cat cafés attract people who may not visit an animal shelter to adopt a pet because they have preconceived ideas of shelters based on stereotypes, said Nanci Urban, shelter services manager for the Animal Welfare Association of New Jersey.
“For us, as a shelter, we try to emphasize the human-animal bond and that is what they’re doing,” Urban added.
Cat cafés are low-pressure environments designed to feel like a home. Cats are free to roam within designated rooms that are separate from where people eat and drink. There are plenty of cat toys and comfy chairs where cats can interact (or not) with visitors, and visa versa.
While they bill themselves as coffee houses and cafés, food and drink is an accessory. Typically, they serve pre-prepared items and self-serve coffee since state health codes have strict rules about food preparation and the presence of animals. They also sell other non-edible merchandise such as T-shirts, pet bowls, scratching posts, litter sprays, cat treats, and toys. Entrance fees cover cat care expenses.
The atmosphere lets people spend time with animals, experience their personalities, and decide if pet ownership is something they want to pursue, said Cindy Kelly, spokeswoman for the Bucks County SPCA, which along with the Doylestown rescue Kitty Junction are providing cats to MeWow.
“You can picture what it would be like,” Tom Gates said.
In its first month, MeWow adopted a dozen cats, including two 8-week-old gray tabby brothers to Karen and Tom Gates.
The couple wasn’t looking to add to their family. They are retired and like to travel regularly. Taking care of kittens is a lot different than a grown cat.
But they couldn’t be happier. They are even planning to be regulars at the café.
“I get the whole thing with therapy animals now,” Karen said. “They bring us joy. It’s like being around little kids — they bring you so much pleasure.”
MeWow owner Eilene Shaffer is a Warwick resident whose previous jobs included substitute teacher. Opening a cat café was her dream. She even brainstormed business ideas with her students such as tech-free events, where visitors turn in phones and other electronic devices when they enter the café. She is investigating possibly bringing in school guidance counselors and local therapists for those events.
Shaffer, who has two cats of her own, Jet and Martini, limits visitors to no more than nine in the Kitty Corral, fewer if there are fewer cats. Demand for those spots has been overwhelming, she said. Opening weekend was booked solid. At one point, Shaffer had to close the cat room so the kitties could rest, she said.
“I love cats,” she added. “I want to be a cat in my next life.”