Animal lovers want stricter rules for pet cafes

Mr Jonathan Tan (above), the owner of Cuddles Cat Cafe in Orchard Road, expressed utmost "regret and remorse" after seven cats died within three months of the cafe's opening. The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority decided not to renew the pet cafe's
Mr Jonathan Tan (above), the owner of Cuddles Cat Cafe in Orchard Road, expressed utmost "regret and remorse" after seven cats died within three months of the cafe's opening. The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority decided not to renew the pet cafe's licence.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Rights activists call for more specific laws to ease animals' stress levels

Animal rights activists are calling for more specific laws and stricter enforcement to ensure the welfare of animals in pet cafes.

One example is stipulating the maximum number of hours the animals interact with cafe patrons.

There must also be a minimum number of private areas for the animals to get away from one another or from the customers.

This is important as it helps to reduce stress levels in the animals, said Mr Louis Ng, founder of wildlife rescue group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres).

Pet cafes - places where people pay to play with the cafe's free-roaming pets - started in Singapore only last year.

These cafes do not allow customers to take along their own pets. Currently, there are four cat cafes and one dog cafe licensed by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), its spokesman said.

Concerns over how pet cafes are regulated here were raised recently, after seven cats were found to have died within three months of Cuddles Cat Cafe's opening in September.

Mr Jonathan Tan, the owner of the cafe in Orchard Road, has since expressed utmost "regret and remorse" over the deaths, and put up his business for sale.

Last week, AVA decided not to renew the cafe's licence as investigations are ongoing.

Pet cafes that offer animal interaction need an animal exhibition licence from AVA, on top of a licence from the National Environment Agency for those where food is prepared and served.

Under current regulations, pet cafe owners are required to meet certain conditions before a licence is issued. They include allowing pets to have sufficient rest in between interaction sessions and ensuring that animals are properly housed.

Applicants are also interviewed, said the AVA spokesman. They have to demonstrate that they are "knowledgeable about animal health and management, and (have) a satisfactory staffing plan", she said.

Pet cafes that fail to comply with their licensing conditions will not have their licence renewed, the AVA spokesman said. "Further penalties, such as composition fines, may also be imposed on non-compliant (pet) cafes."

Animal rights activists said that having specific codes for pet cafes would make it easier for offenders to be prosecuted.

Ms Corinne Fong, executive director of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said animal welfare has to "take precedence over all else in the cafe, including the business operations and profit".

Commenting on dog cafes, Ms Fong said that each should have a dog behaviourist and trainer.

In November, the Animal and Birds Act was amended to hold those in charge of animals, including pet-related businesses, more accountable.

Business owners must provide proper training for staff who handle animals. Those who fail to comply face a fine of up to $5,000 or a maximum jail term of six months, or both.

They can also be banned from doing business for up to a year.

Cat Welfare Society chief executive Joanne Ng said that cat cafe owners should devote a lot of time and effort to care for the animals, if they "truly have the welfare of the cats at heart".

Cat cafe owners The Straits Times spoke to said that they have measures to ensure their cats' welfare, such as high overhead bridges or hiding places into which the animals can retreat.

Ms Tan Sue Lynn, co-owner of cat cafe Neko no Niwa in Boat Quay, said that as cats sleep an average of 15 hours daily, customers are informed beforehand that interaction with the cats will be limited if they visit in the afternoon.

At The Cat Cafe in Bugis, all employees have previous experience in handling cats, said its co-owner Jefferson Soh.

While Mr Soh agrees that the Cuddles Cat Cafe incident has tarnished the industry's reputation, he remains optimistic.

"A cat cafe might not be the best place for a cat, but... cafe cats (that are given) quality care and attention are in a much better place than (living in a) shelter or being on the street," he said.

kcarolyn@sph.com.sg