Cat Welfare at Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium

(image via cntraveller.com)

Yesterday I gave you the lowdown on how Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium is progressing towards an opening date.  Today we’re going to tackle the potentially thorny issue of cat welfare within the cafe.

Understandably, many cat lovers have expressed concerns that a cafe may not be a suitable environment in which to house a group of rescue cats, and indeed several animal charities have actually opposed the plans for a London cat cafe.  So, with this in mind, I contacted Lauren Pears (the woman behind Lady Dinah’s) and asked how she plans to ensure the cats in her care remain happy and healthy.

I’m expressing my support for Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium because I’m convinced Lauren has prioritised her cats’ welfare over all other aspects of her business, and I’m convinced this is because Lauren is a jolly good egg of a person who genuinely cares about animals.  But, as Lauren herself has pointed out, her venture would simply never get off the ground if the cats in the cafe were unhappy, so exceedingly well cared-for cats make very good business sense too.  I also feel that Lady Dinah’s has already done an awful lot to promote cat rescue and adoption to an audience of people who would’ve previously been unaware that such issues existed – which can only be a good thing.

You can read the full interview with Lauren further down the page, but first here’s a summary of Lady Dinah’s cat welfare strategies:

If the phrase ‘London cat cafe’ conjures up a mental image of hapless cats being pursued around an enclosed space by a crowd of cuddle-hungry tourists, then rest assured, that won’t be happening.  Lady Dinah’s is intended to be the sort of place where people come to relax around cats who are just being cats – customers will be discouraged from picking cats up and also asked to leave any sleeping felines alone to get on with the important job of snoozing most of the day away.   Customer numbers are going to be strictly regulated so that the cats are never overwhelmed by human attention.

All the rescue cats who are being homed to the cafe are being selected on the basis of personality – only the sort of laid-back, super-friendly cats who absolutely love interacting with humans need apply for the job.  Any cat who turns out to be unhappy in the cafe will be safely and responsibly rehomed.

The interior design of the cafe is to be based around the cats’ needs:  there will be easily and permanently accessible areas which are off limits to customers, so the cats can spend time away from people whenever they choose.  These areas (one indoor space and two enclosed outdoor spaces) will also allow cats within the group to establish separate territories, and so should reduce stress caused by the multi-cat household situation.

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(image via dontbeahayter.com)

Within the cafe itself there will be plenty of cat furniture situated out of reach to the customers, so the cats can spend time with people but avoid being directly interacted with, if that’s what they fancy doing.  Interaction between customers and cats will be monitored at all times by trained cafe staff.

Lauren has been working with a vet, called Lee, who she says ‘has given me so much advice and so many resources to further my knowledge of cat health.  Lee is an absolute gem.’  In addition to advising Lauren, Lee has also devised a training programme which all staff members will take part in every six months.  This will ensure that staff are able to pick up on signs of stress, chronic pain, and other cat behavourial issues.  All the cats will have a full health check with a vet every three months.

Some people have expressed concern that Lauren will be exploiting the cats in her care for personal profit.  (Personally, I feel that accusation can be far more justifiably levelled at those who breed and show pedigree cats, but that’s a whole other argument!)  There’s no denying that Lady Dinah’s is a profit making venture; why else would someone go to the trouble of setting up a business?  But I certainly don’t think Lauren’s guilty of cat exploitation.  After all, the cats who will be ‘staffing’ the cafe are rescue animals in need of a good  home, so, providing they turn out to be happy within the cafe environment, surely they’ve merely been successfully rehomed (albeit unconventionally), not exploited.  Lauren’s also going to use the cafe to promote cat welfare issues – she’s planning lectures on topics such as the importance of neutering.  In addition to this, Lady Dinah’s will be hosting fundraising tea parties for animal charities, and will also be donating a percentage of the cafe’s profits to animal good causes.  Hardly the behaviour of someone hell-bent on exploiting helpless moggies for their own nefarious gain, is it?

OK, so you’ve read the summary and my opinion on London’s cat cafe; now read on and find out what Lauren Pears has to say.  And then, if you have time to leave a comment, I’d love to hear your views on Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium.

Lady Dinah’s has already done a lot to publicise cat adoption/rescue.  Once the business is up and running are there any plans to use the cafe to promote cat welfare issues such as ‘Adopt, Don’t Buy’, and the importance of neutering in reducing the unwanted cat population?

Definitely!  We want to run a regular lecture program about animal welfare, conservation, neutering, all sorts.  Our building designs include a large projection screen that allows us to show lecture slides and films.  We will be very well set up for that.

We will also be very well set up to run fundraising events for charities, and would have great infrastructure in place to do things like charity tea parties.

We’re also committing to donate part of our profits to animal welfare causes.  We haven’t finalised when we will be able to afford to do that, but I think after our opening quarter, once we’ve honoured all the crowdfunding perks, we’ll know what we can afford to do and will start making regular direct contributions to animal welfare once the business has stabilised.

You mentioned on the Lady Dinah’s blog that you are required to gain an animal care qualification.  Which course will you have to take?

I have to take the pet store management certification course, as will every senior member of my staff.  Lee (the Lady Dinah’s vet) is also designing a bespoke supplementary course for us, to extend this even further.  He is also preparing a 6 month refresher course, which we will run for our staff and allow limited numbers of the public to attend.  These courses will focus on re-training staff to recognise symptoms of chronic pain, of stress and other important behavioural issues in cats that the staff will be expected to monitor as part of their job.

What is your planned cat-customer ratio going to be?  And have you decided how many cats you are going to adopt yet?

Not yet, our vet and I are in ongoing discussion about this.  We are preparing a rigorous risk assessment document that covers the factors likely to affect the cats’ mental and physical health.  This will include the ratio of humans/cats, how many resources for cats are available, and how we can lay out the space so that it allows cats to define ‘territories’ with minimal conflict.  We’re establishing metrics like “30% more resources than cats.”  For example, if we have six cats we’ll have eight litter trays, eight or more entry and exit points and eight or more water sources etc.

It’s a bit of an unspecific answer, but we’re being very careful about this and we won’t make decisions prematurely.  We need a good number of cats to make sure they aren’t over-stimulated, but we need to exercise caution because multiple cat households with large populations can be problematic.

The great news is, there are a number of white papers on the subject of multiple cat households, there is a lot of guidance documentation and a lot of legislation governing animal welfare, and we can access this information quite freely.  We have more than ample information, resources and expertise at hand to inform good decisions on design and capacity management.

Cats exhibit stress in a number of different ways.  Some signs of stress – such as spraying and gang-warfare – are obvious; but other stress-related behaviours – such as cystitis, over-grooming and cats staring at one another – are less easy to spot.  Is there going to be anyone employed at the cafe who has sufficient knowledge of cat behaviour to be able to pick up on more subtle signs of stress?

Absolutely.  In addition to providing training and certification for all our staff, there will be a test that candidates must pass in order to be hired, which will include questions on stress related behaviours and chronic pain indicators.

Incidentally, failing to perform well at training courses will be a sackable offence in our employment contract – take it seriously, do well at it, or you’re out.  End of.  We live and die as a business by the happiness of our animals, and taking that side of the business seriously is non-negotiable.

You responded to concern over the cats being left unattended when the cafe is closed by putting out a request for volunteer cat-sitters.  Presumably the volunteers will be left alone overnight with the cats, and won’t be supervised by cafe staff.  How are you planning to assess potential volunteers in order to make sure they are suitable to be placed in this position?

There will be a volunteering contract, a testing process and at least one of the people on-site overnight will have to be certified in animal first aid.  We won’t take one-off volunteers, these will be people in a long term program with us.  In exchange, we pay for their training and certification and they will be first on the list for jobs when new vacancies come up.

There are bound to be initial teething troubles with some of the cats – they’re unlikely to all get on with one another, and there’s also the possibility that some cats who appeared to have the right temperament for a cafe environment will actually find the reality of cafe life quite stressful.  What will happen to those cats who don’t fit in?

Any cat that doesn’t enjoy the cafe environment will be re-homed: no cat will be held in the cat cafe if they are clearly unhappy.  We’re a cat cafe, not a cat jail.

We’d keep the unhappy puss in the private cat area (unless, of course, it was the other cats causing the problem, in which case we’d look for a foster parent), and use our extensive network to look for a new home.

For the re-homing we plan to promote for the animal through Lady D’s, but outsource the home checking process to a charity, and let them charge their usual rehoming fee, independent of us.  So we do the legwork to find an owner, pay to keep the cat onsite (or in a foster home) until he or she is rehomed, and the charity gets their usual fee.

Any large group of the same species kept together can be vulnerable to outbreaks of disease.  What provisions have been put in place should this happen?

All cats will have a preliminary health check, neutering, worming, vaccinations etc before homing them in the cafe.  They will arrive with a clean bill of health and every three months they have a routine vet check.  They’ll have vet checks if any symptoms show between routine checks, and if a kitty falls ill, we will have a suitably sized isolation cabin for them to stay in while they convalesce to prevent infection to other cats.

I’ve noticed that some of the SE Asian cat cafes sell treats for the customer to give to the cats, as this guarantees cat-human interaction.  Will you be doing this?  And, if so, how are you going to prevent any resident feline greedy guts from becoming overweight?

We’re using rationed gumball machines.  Every day we will fill small capsules with fresh kibble (not treats, just normal food), only enough for all the cats to have a healthy amount.  If customers want to feed the cats, they can buy a capsule of kibble from one of our vintage brass gumball dispensers and drop the empty capsule in our recycling bin afterwards for re-use.

The cafe hosts, who watch the cafe activity full-time, can monitor if any cats are greedier than others and will caution guests against feeding any particularly greedy cats.  They can also monitor guests who are exhausting kibble supplies (although it’s worth bearing in mind, of course, that there’s only so much people will be willing to spend on balls of kibble).

The cafe hosts also monitor what the cats eat in terms of ratio of kibble to wet food.  We’re mindful that a diet heavy in dry food can contribute to potentially chronic conditions like cystitis.

Regarding human food, we’re actually writing and illustrating an information booklet at the moment: Lady Dinah’s Guide to What Not to Feed Your Cat.  It will be an illustrated ettiquette guide that explains why certain human foods are bad for cats.  We will have it on every table and we’ll sell it in store and online to help educate people about the lesser-known foods that are poisonous to cats. 

2 responses to “Cat Welfare at Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium

  1. I for one, cannot wait for this to open. I am so very fortunate that I am able to have my own two cats, but this was years in the waiting when I moved to London. Animals provide such sense of calm, yet cats also provide whimsy and aloofness… Even though I am a guardian to my beasts, I am sure I will venture down for a flat white and a mooch with a feline, on their terms!! CATS RAWK!!! 😉

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