The Zen of cat cafes

New research suggests that spending time with animals is among the best coping methods for stress, anxiety and generalized depression.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America terms this the “pet effect.” Surveying thousands of pet owners across the country, the ADAA found that 74% reported mental health improvements from pet ownership.

College students are among the most at-risk groups for anxiety and depression, but financial and time commitments often make pet ownership unrealistic. But there is now a new alternative for animal-loving students looking for quality stress relief: cat cafes.

Over the past five years, shops that mix a classic cafe atmosphere with the chance to watch, play with and even adopt cats, have popped up across the U.S.

Georgia’s first cat cafe, Java Cats Cafe, opened its doors in 2017 when founder Hadyn Hilton bought space along Memorial Drive in Grant Park. Since then, the cafe has grown to be a staple of the neighborhood and a welcome oasis for all who need a mental break. In fact, with the cafe’s popularity, Hilton opened a second location in Marietta a year and a half ago.

Nick Pekny has worked as a barista at Java Cats for two years and currently leads operations at the Grant Park location.

“My whole thing is, I want people to be comfortable; I want the atmosphere to be good,” Pekny said. “I’m a big believer that what you put out is what you’ll get back, so I’m always trying to make this place peaceful and relaxing. I’ll sometimes do little things for fun, too, like drawing cat faces in the latte art.”

Java Cats and its neighboring cat cafe, Happy Tabby, are partnered with local animal shelters PAWS Atlanta and Furkids, respectively.

“What I tell people is to think of us as a big foster home,” Pekny said. “So, basically, the shelter provides us with the cats, and we house and take care of them. It’s just like anyone else fostering animals from their house. And, we’re about to hit our 700th adoption.”

Though adoption is a large part of cat cafes, visitors looking to simply spend an hour or two among the cats are more than welcome. Java Cats includes a cozy room full of couches, cat toys and pillows where, for $10 an hour, visitors can play with the animals and sip a complimentary coffee.

“It’s like the most serene place I’ve ever been,” Jenna Gardner, a Georgia State student and Java Cats regular, said. “I come here whenever I’m feeling stressed out or like I need to unwind. With finals season coming up, I’ll probably be here a lot.”

Gardner has introduced Java Cats to many friends and family members over the years and hopes it continues to grow in popularity.

“I think it’s something a lot of people probably don’t realize they could really benefit from,” she said. “Come here for a little while and just tune everything out. I think it’ll work for you.”