Japan's Rent-a-Pet Cafes Are All the Rage

In a culture where long work hours and small apartments are the norm, it can be hard to keep a pet. But feline aficionados in some Japanese cities have a novel alternative: the cat cafe. 

For an hourly fee, deprived cat lovers can hang out with kitties, read a magazine and have a cup of coffee in a comfortable, living room-like setting.

Although there are customers of all ages, the majority are young people — most of whom live in apartments that don't allow pets — and some of these cafes have even morphed into popular date spots.

Since the first cat cafe opened in the mid-2000s, they've exploded in popularity, with about 150 of them now in operation nationwide.

Next Frontier: Cafes for Critters of All Kinds

The idea has expanded to other types of animals, the newest trend being rabbit cafes, with several opening recently in Tokyo. Even lovers of the less cuddly are beginning to get their chance: A reptile cafe has opened in Yokohama, featuring snakes, tortoises, geckos, bearded dragons and some newts thrown into the mix for amphibian admirers.

These new cafes are a bit different from the cat versions, where felines wander freely. Rabbits are kept in cages and are only let out when customers come in for a cuddle. Many of the residents of the reptile cafe can't be touched by customers — they're on display, like at a zoo — but you can pet the tortoises (just be sure to wash your hands before and after).

But even the cat cafes aren't a free-for-all. Most have specific rules when it comes to interacting with the animals. You're not allowed to hold or pet a cat against her will or wake a cat who's sleeping. And kittens who wear scarves are too young to be held.

The owner of at least one rabbit cafe sees her mission as partly humanitarian. Rabbits have become a trendy pet in Japan, but people often don't educate themselves before buying bunnies, leading to an uptick in homeless pet rabbits. At the cafe, prospective owners can learn how to properly care for rabbits — and get the lowdown on what it really means to own one.

Earlier Closing Times Could Mean Less Cuddle Time

Despite their cult popularity, starting June 1, a new revision of Japan's animal protection laws will force these cafes to shutter at 8 p.m. Owners and customers are in an uproar, since many patrons don't arrive until after work — right around 8 p.m.

An editorial in the English-language Japan Times decries the new regulation, pointing out the educational value of the cafes in a country where euthanasia rates for abandoned pets are high — not to mention the mental health benefits of interacting with animals. As the writer laments, "excessive interference in the cafes means one less healthy, relaxing activity for a hardworking populace."

What do you think? Are these cafes harmful to animals and should be banned? Or do you think there is an educational and cultural benefit to having them? Tell us in the comments below.

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