Architecture Building Glass  - StockSnap / Pixabay Cat cafe display
Picture courtesy of StockSnap / Pixabay

I was sitting at a small cafe at the airport killing time before taking a flight to Japan. I was researching unusual things to do in Tokyo when I stumbled upon pet cafes. It was not the first time I had heard about animal cafes. They were everywhere in Seoul, which I had visited earlier that year, but I had never been to one.

The information you can find online about pet cafes is very standard and it depicts an establishment with super cute animals you can interact with. Therefore, I thought this time around I would take it upon myself to visit one and see if they lived up to the expectations. So, I came, I saw and I pondered. And this is my plain conclusion:

If you are an animal lover and care about their wellbeing you will be disappointed with the concept of animal cafes in general. Pet cafes are not ethical.

In this post, I will aim to explain to you based on my personal experience and research why I think it is not a good idea to visit a pet cafe and what you can do instead.

Pet cafes: expectation vs reality

What I thought a pet cafe was

Wouldn’t you love to have tea with this cutie?Photo courtesy of stux / Pixabay

When I first heard about pet cafes I envisioned myself sipping my hot green tea while cuddly cats approached me to get some yummy treats. The cat might jump on my lap for extra love and it would leave after a while to do other cat stuff. Did you have something similar in mind? Unfortunately, this is not what happens in most animal cafes.

What a pet café really is

Reality hit me when I went to Seoul for a long weekend. I saw many animal cafe signs and decided to have a look at one. When we got to the premises we saw through its double doors a room full of animal cages and a few tables. People were not sitting having a coffee, but walking around and looking at the animals in small cages. We did not go inside. I was in disbelief. Is this what a pet café looks like? Let’s go, I am not paying for this. I am NOT okay with this.

” Is this what a pet café looks like?
Let´s go, I am not paying for this.
I am NOT okay with this.”

myself when I saw a pet cafe for the first time

Simply put, animal cafes are mini zoos where you pay a fee to see more or less exotic animals. If the animals on exhibit are pets, they usually roam around the area freely, like cats or dogs. However, there are many other animal cafes with wild animals and some of them will be in cages, like meerkats or hedgehogs, and some others will be chained up, like owls. Oh, and forget about your favourite hot beverage, all you get is a crappy coffee from a vending machine.

Why are pet cafes popular?

African Bush Squirrel Paraxerus  - Myriams-Fotos / Pixabay
We all love an animal cuddle! But at what price?
Photo courtesy of Myriams-Fotos / Pixabay

According to different internet sources, it all comes down to the human desire to have an animal companion but not being able to because

a) it costs too much money to have a pet,
b) not having enough time to properly take care of the pet,
c) not having enough room in your home to keep a pet.

Pet cafes provide an environment in which humans can interact with animals for a little while. There is research out there that says interacting with animals is good for our mental health. This is the pet effect, and initially, it sounds like a great idea. But then, businesses start to pop out and with them come good and bad business practices.

Not all pet cafes are created equal. There will always be people who will want to make money at any cost, including animal welfare. However, I believe in good people who will genuinely try to help out animals and treat them as they deserve. I know these people exist because I would totally do that. And I am sure that if you have read this far, you would, too.

Reasons not to visit a pet cafe (and one reason why you should)

Monkey Animal Zoo Wild Nature  - terimakasih0 / Pixabay
A wild animal cannot possibly feel free when it spends most of its time in a cage.
Photo courtesy of terimakasih0 / Pixabay

Pet cafes are detrimental to animal welfare

Oftentimes animal cafes showcase wild animals in cages, chained up or in a reduced space where they cannot move freely. Some other times, animals like hedgehogs will be offered to be handled over and over by pet cafe visitors. Sometimes people will tease the animals with food (I saw it with a capybara and a little primate at an owl cafe in Tokyo) removing the food from the animal’s reach with they are about to get hold of it. All these actions put unnecessary stress on the animals and can have health effects in the long run.

Animal cafes indirectly support animal trade

Where there is a demand, there is a business willing to satisfy it. If people are willing to pay to have close encounters with animals, then dogs will continue to be bred in puppy mills and parrots will be taken out of their natural habitat to live in a room. Unknowingly, we may be supporting bad business practices or even illegal activities.

Animal cafes are not cafes

From an ethical point of view, this is the least important of reasons not to go to an animal cafe. It is still fair to note though that the title of cafe in this type of business is often misleading. It would be more accurate to call them mini zoos. But if you are immediately turned down by the quality of drinks served at an establishment, you will want to avoid pet cafes at all costs. Personally, I feel that calling a room with a vending machine a cafe is totally a scam.

Visit an animal cafe if…

…it is a place created to help animals and not a place that uses animals for human enjoyment. I researched humane pet cafes around Tokyo and read some inspiring stories. Some pet cafes adopt stray animals or help out NGOs to manage stray animals in the city. These are some questions to ask yourself before stepping inside a pet cafe:

  • Has this cafe another purpose other than making money out of displaying animals? Maybe you find out that the cafe rescues animals or volunteers with an NGO to help abandoned pets.
  • Where are these animals coming from? Are these animals being purchased, hunted in a nearby forest, imported from exotic regions, being rescued… In short, are these animals being ripped off their natural habitat or being bred for human leisure? Or are they rescued animals? Also, are these animals meant to be domestic?
  • Are these animals free to move around or are they in cages? Animals need space to move around. You cannot have a raccoon that’s meant to be climbing trees inside a cage where it can barely move. If a facility cannot provide an animal with enough room to move, then they should not keep that animal.
  • What happens with these animals out of business hours? Is somebody staying with them? What systems do they have in place to know that animals will be safe?
  • What about the animal’s physical and mental health? Are these animals being mentally stimulated? Do they get the exercise they need, and if they do, how do they obtain it? How often do they see a vet? Do they get “rest time” or are they constantly being touched and disturbed by humans?
  • Are there rules in place inside the business so that humans know how to interact with the animals?

Better options to animal cafes

If you are an animal lover and would like to do an animal related activity you need to research the country you intend to visit. No shortcut here. Below is a list of basic ideas to plant the seed and get you started.

Deer Ruminant Wild Wild Animal  - nadild08 / Pixabay
A much better option is to see animals in their natural habitats. Photo courtesy of nadild08 / Pixabay

Animal sanctuaries and parks

Some easy options that are safer and less stressful for animals are visiting open parks or hiking in the countryside where you can spot animals in their natural habitat. For example, in Japan, you can visit the deer park in Nara, where these cue animals are protected and well taken care of.

Volunteer at animal shelters or sanctuaries

Depending on the amount of time that you are going to spend in an area, you can find a place that actually needs help. Some animal shelters offer walks with their dogs to give them a chance to get out of the installations. Sanctuaries and animal rehabilitation centres will take care of animals that for one reason or another cannot go back to the wild. This may be temporary, for example, if they are recovering from an injury, or for life if the animal is permanently injured.

An experience unrelated to animals

Let’s leave animals to do their thing. I am sure you will not ruin your trip if you do not see a caged animal or handle a hedgehog. Japan, big in animal cafes but also the ultimate quirky country to visit, has many cool options that don’t involve animal welfare being compromised.

Final thoughts on animal cafes

If someone who hasn’t read this post came and asked me if they should visit a pet cafe, my answer would be no. However, if you are willing to do your research and find an awesome ethical place whose main purpose is to take care of animals, by all means, let us know in the comments!

Is it ethical to visit a pet cafe? Short answer: no. Longer answer, it depends. For a more in depth personal view on animal cafes, read the article, which includes a few more responsible alternatives to animal entertainmnet.
Pet cafes are a very popular attraction in Asian countries like Japan or South Korea. No one can resist cuddling with a cute animal. But are pet cafes ethical? In most cases, the answer is no. So here are 3 reasons why you should not visit an animal cafe.

Youtube video with my thoughts on pet cafes

Should you visit a pet cafe?
My impressions of pet cafes on YouTube

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  1. @spanishnomad i think pet cafés should be more about a place you can go with your own pet instead of a place you go to fulfill a need for contact with animals. Go to a shelter and do volunteer work for that, right? I’ve heard about one pet café here in Bangkok. They have so many dogs now that they don’t accept outside dogs anymore. And that’s why I’ve never been there. Honestly, I don’t know if their proposal is the same you’ve just described, but I prefer to go to dog FRIENDLY cafes, like and @lukasirihouse. They are really rare here in Bangkok, so I value the places that offer this so very much and become a loyal client!

    1. Thank you, Gabi. I agree with you, but it is interesting that some pet cafes are actually born out of the desire to help stray animals. It is cool that it works both ways, animals are being spayed and vaccinated, and people can spend time with the animals, which are being treated respectfully. The money that they gather is being used for the welfare of the animals, so it’s a win win. 🙂

  2. I’ve never actually thought about going to a pet cafe, and now that I think about it, I don’t think I ever will. I think there are more ethical ways to look after and support stray animals and things like that. It would be an interesting experience, but not one I’ll be doing.

    1. Hi Jasmine! You are right, a pet cafe is not a good way to support homeless animals. But I think pet cafes are the just the tip of the iceberg of a bigger issue. It is my understanding that in Asian countries, there is a demand for exotic animals as pets. So you can actually go to a pet store and buy an owl or a hedgehog. Therefore, in some other parts of the world, there are either breeding exotic animals or hunting them for future sale. Quite sad.

  3. I don’t think I would visit one personally… I am sure there are great ones, but I also know of ones locally which ended up being bad. If I had enough time to really research, that might be different 🙂

    1. Hey, thanks for leaving your opinion! :). When I travelled to Japan I very much wanted to visit the cat cafe that takes care of stray cats and part of the benefits of the business are invested in the welfare of those animals, such as vaccines, spaying, food… I am not sure about where they overnight, but this system definitely left me wanting to learn more from them because it follows more an animal shelter model.

  4. Thank you for providing both sides of the story. I personally am against these cafes as I don’t think the environment is anything even similar to what the animals should be in, but this is my opinion.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I agree with you, a cafe is not the natural environment for animals that are not even supposed to be pets in the first place.

  5. This sounds terrible! From the name of it I first thought the same about pet cafes as you did. I’ve known many cafes in India which are pet cafes but they are nothing like these, rather those are pet-friendly cafes where you bring your own pet to a cafe so that your pet gets to enjoy the company of others’ pets. I suppose that’s what pet cafes should be like.

  6. Wow. Never knew about pet cafes til your article. Really glad to know the reality behind it.

  7. I had no idea there are cat cafés that keep animals in cages! I’ve only been to the ones in China so far and all the cats were free to roam around there and do whatever they want. I would love to open (ethical) cat cafés in other parts of the world in the future.

  8. Oh that’s awful! I think the only pet cafe I’ve been to was a bunny cafe and the bunnies weren’t caged; they were free to hop around on the tables. They seemed well taken care of, and I can only hope that was true even after customers left! The owners treated the bunnies like their own pets so I think they were!

  9. I don’t think I would like to go to a pet cafe to be honest and your post has just reconfirmed my original thoughts.

  10. Oh wow, this sounds quite horrific. And certainly not something one should support. Here in London there are also one or two cat cafes. Personally I haven’t been there, but from photos on Instagram (and what friends told me), that sounded much more like I envisioned. A cute cafe that has a couple of cats that may or may not come to you whilst you are there. Surely I wouldn’t want to visit a pet cafe that effectively is some cruel mini zoo with vending machines.

  11. Thank you for this article. It’s a sad topic but a message that needs to be spread. I too have visited a lot of animal cafes in my years living in Japan. Unfortunately, I do agree with a lot of what you said, it’s just as visitors until you give these things more thought or research you won’t realize the harmful effects it has. We did visit some ethical puppy cafes, which were actually like foster homes, where they have dogs up for adoption that you can pay to play with for a while. It’s more like keeping them company, I don’t think there was even an actual cafe or drink given to us. But you can really feel the difference.

  12. I I’ve gone to a pet cafe once in Japan, a hedgehog one, and I agree with all the points you’ve made on why you shouldn’t go! The hedgehog was so stressed out that I stopped trying to touch it and just enjoyed looking at it. Luckily, it eventually calmed down and went to sleep, but the experience was enough to convince me not to go to one again.

  13. I took my kids to a cat cafe in Branson. There was a cafe, separate from the cat lounge by a large window. The cafe was actually good. There were strict rules for animal interaction. Don’t feed the cats, don’t disturb the cats, don’t pick up the cats. The cats were rescues and some up for adoption. They were well cared for. We paid for an hour with the cats. Many of the cats were resting or lounging. One or two sought out interaction either by climbing in our lap or responding to the provided toys. The cats even had access to a back room where they could come and go if they didn’t want to be around others. There were sofas, chaise lounges, and cat trees/ decor made for cats. They were provided areas to be out of reach. Money collected was used for their care and there was a limit on the number of people allowed with the cats at one time. It was a very nice experience. There was also an assistant in the cat lounge to ensure the cats safety and comfort. It was our first experience and I can’t imagine it happening in any other form.

    1. Stephanie, thanks for sharing your experience with this great animal cafe. This cafe sets a high standard that ensures the safety of both animals and guests and demonstrates that things can be done the right way. Kudos to them!

  14. I’ve actually been wanting to open my own cat cafe sometime in the future, but in no way would I ever do something this unethical. I love animals and want what’s best for them. I would rescue a few cats from the local animal shelter and advertise the shelter for others to rescue animals. They’d be roaming around the shop instead of being held in cages. I got the idea because college students (like myself) can’t have pets in dorms and being with a loving animal helps relieve the stress of studying. Plus, I know how to make some bomb a** coffee 😉

    1. Hey Brooke, I think it is so awesome you want to open a cat cafe that collaborates with animal shelters. Best of luck with your uni studies, and let us know if there are any ethical pet cafes where you live 🙂

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