Kelly Whiteside holding Sophie in the cat lounge

Owner Kelly Whiteside with resident cat Sophie / Image via Sophia Wasylinko

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Kitties & Cream is partnered with CatNap Society, part of the Catspan Ferals Registered Charity. The cat cafe is not partnered with CatNap at this time, but with Catspan. Also, Catspan is not part of or related to Catnap. We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.

Feeling stressed? Missing your cat? Or just looking for an excuse to procrastinate?

You can relax and unwind while indulging your love for cats at Vancouver Island’s first cat café, Kitties & Cream, located off Fitzwilliam Street in the Old City Quarter of downtown Nanaimo.

What is a cat café? It’s exactly what it sounds like: a café with a cat lounge. The lounge might have resident cats, adoptable cats, or both. Some also have a retail section for cat supplies and “meowchandise” (feline-inspired merch). 

The concept isn’t limited to just cats. Dog cafés are also popular, and in some countries you can find bunny cafés and even goat cafés. 

I found Kitties & Cream through Facebook in early 2020. As a cat lover, I was attracted to the cat-themed merchandise and terrible puns on their social media posts. When they announced a physical location in Nanaimo, I was excited to visit and hoped to apply to work there when I returned to VIU. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out that way due to COVID-19.

One of Kitties & Cream’s missions is to educate people about cat therapy. Owner Kelly Whiteside explained, “A lot of people don’t realize that cats can help, especially with mental health but also with physical health.” 

Cats make the perfect therapy animals. Scientific studies show that cat owners are less likely to have a heart attack or stroke, and children exposed to cats are less likely to develop asthma. An article in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America found that the vibrations in a cat’s purr may help heal bones and reduce stress in both cats and humans. Finally, according to the 2015 Mayo Clinic study “Are Pets in the Bedroom a Problem?”, pet owners slept better with their cat or dog. Women especially preferred having their cats in bed instead of their partners. 

If anything, the pandemic has shown how much of an impact pets have on mental well-being. Cats bring their owners happiness and comfort—without nearly as much walking or maintenance as dogs require. 

Animal shelters across the country reported record adoption numbers, which kept increasing for cats during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sadly, they are now seeing those same pets surrendered several months later. Possible reasons include a return to the physical workplace or moving to a place that doesn’t allow pets.

Whiteside got the inspiration for Kitties & Cream after visiting several cat cafés in Japan in 2016. “I was in Heaven, as somebody who was not allowed to have cats throughout most of my life,” she said. “I fell in love with the cats, as well as the concept, and I thought that it would be really cool to have something like that here.”

While developing a business plan for Kitties & Cream, Whiteside followed the opening of Catoro Café in Vancouver in 2019, which is themed around Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbor Totoro (1988). She also asked for advice from many cat café owners in Canada and across the border in the United States, where the concept is more popular.

She started creating a business plan for her own café in 2018, which took about a year. The next step was getting the funding approved and finding a location. Whiteside says she was lucky to get the space in the Old City Quarter. “I know a lot of cat café owners spend years trying to find a place that can work with the concept and have landlords that are willing to [have] a bunch of cats.” 

Unfortunately, when COVID-19 hit, the cat café lost its funding. Between that and getting the proper zoning, the process dragged on. Kitties & Cream held a soft opening in October 2020 and officially opened to the public in November. 

Currently, only the cat lounge and retail space are open. However, Whiteside hopes to have the café portion up and running after renovations, which she predicts will be long and expensive. 

Kitties & Cream is partnered with Catspan Ferals Registered Charity, as well as a few Saskatchewan-based rescues. The café is currently home to six resident cats: 

Cas (Whiteside’s cat, loves playing with the automatic laser pointer); 

Mouse (Whiteside’s cat, the oldest); 

Damon (the retail associate and greeter);

Sophie (usually to be found on top of the climbing cat wall);

Luna (loves jumping on people’s shoulders); and 

Willow (polydactyl, or extra-toed).

The café is still waiting for the first group of adoptable cats from Saskatchewan. Between the pandemic travel restrictions and the fires in BC’s Interior earlier in the year, the process has been slowed.  

Through its Facebook page, Kitties & Cream also shares advertisements for adoptable cats at the pet store Bosley’s by Pet Value. So far, at least one cat has been adopted thanks to their word of mouth.

My mom and I visited the café this past summer while we were on vacation. We came in the early afternoon when the cats were sleepy; while Damon greeted us at the door, most of them ignored us until the end of our visit.

When I returned to the lounge for Whiteside’s interview in October, it was in the evening when the cats were about to be fed. They were very vocal, and Cas actually jumped onto the table we were seated at, looking for some attention. 

Kitties & Cream sells kitty litter, food, toys, catnip, and other feline products. For humans, they sell shirts, jewelry, stickers, soaps, mugs, chocolates, and “meowcarons” (feline-inspired macaroons). There are also plans to add a drinks cooler. The café has suppliers from Canada, the United States, and even Singapore and Taiwan. However, it tries to partner with as many local artists and artisans as possible. 

Most online promotion for Kitties & Cream is done through Facebook and Instagram. The café also has booths at local markets, some as far away as Victoria, and events such as FROSH on the VIU Nanaimo campus. They will be at the Fa la la la Local Mom Market Vancouver Island at Woodgrove Centre from November 19–22, the Vancouver Island Winter Retail Market at Nanaimo North Town Centre from December 2–5, and the Merry Local Market at Woodgrove Centre from December 9–12.

The café has its own delivery service and is also partnered with Uber Eats to deliver cat food and litter. In the near future, customers who buy the same item every month will be able to sign up for an auto-shipment service.

Despite all the curveballs that life and COVID-19 has thrown her way, Whiteside remains optimistic. She loves her work and wants to share her passion with people who aren’t able to own cats. Even with her mask, I could tell she was smiling.

“It’s been a fun journey overall,” she said. “It’s full of ups and downs and tears. Happy tears and sad tears. It’s been stressful, of course, but it’s a labour of love and I think it’s something that Nanaimo needs.”

Kitties & Cream’s store is open 10 am–6 pm daily, while the cat lounge is open 11–5. Due to COVID-19, there is a limit of six visitors inside the cat lounge, and visits are limited to 45–50 minutes. The best times to visit are in the morning or evening, when the cats are more active. 

Children under five are not allowed inside the lounge, though they can watch the cats through the “obspurrvation” window. Children five to ten years old must be accompanied by an adult; they can pet the cats, but they can’t force the cats to come closer. As Whiteside said, “Respect the cats and they’ll respect you. Hopefully.” 

For any updates, to sign up for the Kitties & Cream “mewsletter,” or to book an appointment in the lounge, visit their website.

 

Editor

Sophia Wasylinko is a third-year Creative Writing and Journalism student. She was the Entertainment Reporter for CHLY 101.7FM in winter 2020. Her favorite things in life are cats, the color purple, coffee, and books (mysteries or books about ghosts, murder, and crime in general). Sophia is excited to be back in Nanaimo and hopes to explore more of Vancouver Island this year.

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