Stressed-out animal lovers can’t get enough of cat cafés and promotions like Uber Puppies, but do the commercial benefits come at the expense of animal welfare? Angela Tufvesson investigates.
There’s no doubt pet ownership improves the health and happiness of human owners. However, for many animal lovers long hours at work, a hectic family schedule or small living quarters mean housing a furry friend just isn’t practical. To fill the void, pet-sharing initiatives—like cat cafés and Uber Puppies—are springing up all over Australia and around the world. Cat and dog deprived folks can cosy up with animals while sipping a latte or from the comfort of their office. Many of these new businesses are partnered with animal shelters and offer adoption opportunities.
Unsurprisingly, the growing popularity of these initiatives has prompted many experts to question the ethical merits of allowing the general public unbridled access to cats and dogs. There are concerns that unfamiliar and uncontrolled environments can potentially create stressful conditions that at best offer no benefit to the animals. At worst they dramatically decrease psychological wellbeing and increase rates of disease. Some commentators are concerned that too much excitement could also encourage impulse pet adoptions.
Research suggests that cats thrive in environments where they have access to their own sleeping space and litter tray, and live according to a predictable routine of feeding, cleaning and human contact. Feline veterinarian Dr Kim Kendall says many Australian cat cafés don’t provide optimal living conditions for cats, which can lead to stress and other long-term consequences.
“One of the big welfare issues is cats need to be able to choose to be together and choose to be apart, and none of the models I’ve come across give the cats getaway places. There’s nowhere they can go that will guarantee that if they doze off into REM sleep someone won’t attack them or push them off the chair or sit too close.”
One study published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science in 1993—which Dr Kendall says is still relevant today—found cats who were subjected to a 21-day period of irregular feeding and cleaning times, the absence of talking and petting by humans, and other unpredictable daily events were chronically stressed. Dr Kendall says these are replicated in many cat cafés: “If you apply that model to most cafés that’s what you’ve created—random interactions with people.”
What’s more, she says because cats living in cafés are often rescue animals available for adoption, the transient cat population is never able to establish a formal social structure. “If you put cats in this situation, it takes a year for the cats to develop an association so they know which cats they don’t want to sit near, who they can share a litter tray with and so on,” she says. “Adult cats take a long time to develop associations.”
Ride-sharing the love
Similar concerns have been raised about ride-sharing app Uber’s kitten promotion. In 2015 users in six Australian cities enjoyed 15 minutes of cuddle time in return for a $40 donation to cat shelters. In between cuddles, the kittens were transported by car to offices and other workplaces. Animal experts were especially concerned that the kittens
may have experienced high levels of stress in transit and during exposure to unfamiliar environments.
The company hasn’t run a subsequent kitten promotion, instead launching Uber Puppies for the first time in Australia on 24 February. Run in conjunction with Purina’s ‘pets at work’ program and supported by animal shelters, Uber Puppies also requested a donation in return for puppy time. It required users to answer a series of screening questions for puppy safety and set up a dedicated puppy-proofed playroom. Puppy lovers were encouraged to contact the shelters directly about adoption opportunities.
Rosalie Horton, a senior behaviourist at Animal Welfare League New South Wales, which participated in Uber Puppies, says although she was initially concerned that the project wasn’t in the best interests of the puppies, in the end she realised it offered a host of benefits. Crucially, Animal Welfare League NSW believes that puppies are more robust than kittens and need to experience various social settings as part of their training and development.
“There’s a critical period of time in puppy development when they really need to be exposed in a positive way to a wide range of experiences. We’re limited in the shelter in terms of how we can socialise our puppies with a variety of people. So I thought, if this is done properly this could be a really amazing way for our puppies to meet a lot of people, get used to being in the car, get used to being handled and being out and about rather than spending all day in the shelter,” says Horton.
“As part of our routine we have field trips where we take our dogs and puppies on outings to shopping centres, parks and dog beaches. This was just an opportunity for us to take them somewhere new—an office—and we used that as a way to train the puppies about carpet, being around people and being in cars. It was a really great way to do these things that we wouldn’t normally get to do in a shelter environment.”
Ten puppies were used on the day and a schedule was devised based on their normal routine in the shelter, which includes time for naps, feeding, toileting and play. Trained staff from the Animal Welfare League NSW accompanied the puppies, all of which were vaccinated, checked by a vet and behaviour assessed beforehand.
Vets were also on call throughout the day in the event of any problems. Importantly, adoptions weren’t permitted; instead, people were encouraged to contact the shelter directly and follow the usual adoption process.
“We’re limited as to how we can socialise puppies. I thought, if this is done properly this could be an amazing way for puppies to meet a lot of people.” – Rosalie Horton, Animal Welfare League NSW
Horton says Uber was very cooperative with the welfare aspects of the initiative. “On the day they were very supportive,” she says. “We did a special training session that they had to attend, so they knew about dog behaviour, animal welfare and puppy socialisation.”
Animal behaviourist Dr Jo Righetti travelled in one of the Uber Puppies’ cabs and helped to oversee the promotion. She agrees that puppy welfare wasn’t compromised: “What they did was have a carer for the puppies at all times. These people are trained to look and see when a puppy needs a break and see that it’s handled okay. I was willing to come on board because I knew welfare was being cared for.”
Dr Righetti has also worked with Sydney Cat Café, which she says has partnered with an animal shelter to ensure cats are always looked after. “In both those cases we’re looking at trained animal handlers who can skilfully assess the animal’s condition during the working day and make sure everything is okay and that each animal has a break.”
Catmosphere, another Sydney cat café, adopts a similar approach, says co-owner Thomas Derricott. “A cat handler is present in the cat room at all times to explain cat behaviour to people, so we don’t have any well-intentioned but uninformed people who try to pull the cats’ tails or take them from their beds,” he says.
“We also have an isolated human-free zone into which we place the cats if they look like they’re getting a little overwhelmed by too much human affection or if they’re having a disagreement with one of the other cats.”
The 25 cats are assessed regularly by a vet. Some kittens are available for adoption immediately, while older cats are kept in the café until they’re settled before being put forward for adoption. Some especially social cats are identified as long-term café residents.
The right atmosphere
Catmosphere has partnered with local animal shelters to facilitate rescues and adoptions, which Derricott says is an important distinction in discussions about animal welfare.
“In any kind of business model that pertains to animals there does exist the potential for exploitation,” he says. “When we first considered launching Catmosphere and approached rescue groups they were understandably hesitant at first and we needed to jump through a lot of hoops to prove to them that we were on the same page in that animal welfare is paramount to us.”
But not everyone is convinced. Dr Kendall now runs Café Purrfection in Sydney’s north, which she says is the world’s first ethical cat café.
A stable cat colony is looked after by a select group of staff who perform their duties according to a set routine. Each cat is provided with its own private hideaway space and litter tray.
“For my own interest and to prove the science behind Café Purrfection’s ethical model, I will be testing the faecal cortisol levels of all the cats to monitor their stress levels, as well as having behavioural assessments,” says Dr Kendall.
It’s a murky area, but ultimately Dr Righetti says the market that created these business opportunities will have the final say on animal welfare. “If you were to not look after the animals’ welfare, the pet-loving public would come down hard on you,” she says. “As we’ve seen with puppy farms and so on, if organisations aren’t doing the right thing the public tend to take charge and make sure businesses are doing the right thing.”