Istanbul is legendary for many things like rich history, impressive mosques, scrumptious food, and one less touristy thing – its cats.
Seriously, who hasn’t heard of the fact that there is an impressive number of cats in Istanbul? They are everywhere! So much so, that I propose a new name for the city: Felinestanbul! (and rename the old name to Catstantinople)
Why are there so many cats in Istanbul though? There are a few explanations, each more surprising and fascinating than the other. Let’s take a look.
How many cats are there in Istanbul (The Catatistics)
The short answer is we don’t know.
The little longer answer is anywhere between 80.000 and 1.5 million cats roam Istanbul’s streets. Doesn’t help a lot, does it?
The longest answer involves a bit of statistics and some things about Turkish culture.
The average domestic cat ownership in European countries is around 120 cats per 1000 people. Turkey is actually at the bottom with only around 40 cats per 1000 people or using another statistic, only 14% of Turkish households own a cat.
Strolling the streets of Istanbul, you see so many cats though, so why the discrepancy? Well, most Turkish cats (in Istanbul and elsewhere) are stray cats.
Although, “stray cats” is probably not the correct way to call them. Cats will take offense, but more importantly, they are something like communal pets, looked after by everybody.
Considering that these cats are not counted by anyone, it’s very difficult to estimate the true number of cats. The consensus online seems to be in favor of a low number of 125.000 cats but I claim the cats are secretly plotting to take control of the capital and are in the tens of millions already.
So we just don’t know (pst, meow, pledge allegiance to the Cats Alliance, will you?)
The 6 reasons why there are so many cats in Istanbul
For something so complex there can’t really be just one reason, right? Yes, there are a few explanations that work together to explain why Istanbul has so many stray cats.
1. Ottoman Houses were wooden
Back in the day when the Ottoman Empire was an enormous multicultural political entity spanning from modern-day Hungary to Yemen, the houses in its capital Constantinople (the name officially changed to Istanbul only recently in 1930) were made of mostly wood.
Wooden houses invite a lot of mice. And nothing brings a cat to a house more than a mouse (except for Whiskas wet food maybe).
So naturally, the people of Constantinople/Istanbul made friends with the felines and created a symbiotic relationship that lasts to this day.
2. The Prophet Muhammad adored cats
Islam also helps explain the Turkish people’s love of cats.
There’s a story in which one day Prophet Mohammad was praying when a snake secretly approached to bite him but a cat defended him from the snake’s bite. Mohammad was grateful and granted all cats the ability to land on their feet. Plausible, no?
There’s another story, an even more popular one. In it, Muhammad actually had a pet cat named Muezza. Muezza slept a lot, as cats tend to do. Usually on something warm and cozy. One day this warm and cozy place happened to be Muhammad’s sleeve.
He had to pray (Muslims pray 5 times a day) so instead of waking it up, he just cut his sleeve.
I probably would have done the same, so my verdict on this one is “probable“.
Thus, Muslims revere cats, which explains the wonderfully hospitable attitude Istanbul’s citizens have towards their communal pets.
3. Istanbul has no neutering system in place
Now let’s look at some modern-day explanations. For starters, there are no neutering procedures in Istanbul. This is actually a massive problem, as even with the hundreds of makeshift wooden houses around Istanbul, many cats still remain totally homeless.
Moreover, the average lifespan of a stray cat in Istanbul is 3-4 years (whereas domestic cats live up to 18 years sometimes!), and even with the kind care of Istanbulites, most still live sad lives.
4. Cats are Istanbul’s communal pets
Unquestionably, the biggest reason why Istanbul has so many cats is that the locals see them as their pets. It is common to see people feeding them kebab meat (or other delicious Turkish food) on the street, building small houses for them, petting them, and letting them stay in their laps.
Cats in Istanbul don’t belong to anybody and yet they belong to everybody. They are shared community pets. And the locals love them!
5. Istanbulites care for the cats!
Istanbulites take pride in looking out for their feline friends. Numerous individuals and organizations are dedicated to providing food, shelter, and medical care to the strays.
Just take a look at how the community organized to feed the cats during the lockdowns of 2020.
It’s not uncommon to see small, homemade cat shelters in the city’s nooks and crannies, offering refuge to those in need.
The cats are well-fed. Well, at least the cats in the central districts like Kadıköy, Fatih, Beyoğlu, Beşiktaş, to name a few. The farther from the center you go, to more hungry the cats become.
6. New laws protect cats in Istanbul
To wrap everything up in a legal framework, Turkey passed a new law in 2021 that considers cats “living beings” (before that they were “commodities”). Anyone who kills, abuses, or tortures animals will be prosecuted with sentences of up to 4 years in prison!
The same law also mandates the sterilization of stray animals in Turkey (see point 3), which hasn’t started yet.
Istanbul’s cats have become world-famous!
In the age of social media, Istanbul’s cats have achieved international fame. Instagram accounts like @catsofistanbul (and at least 5 more copycats, pun intended) showcase the city’s photogenic felines, garnering thousands of followers from across the globe. Here’s the original Cats of Istanbul Facebook page too.
These accounts not only share adorable cat photos but also shed light on the unique stories of individual cats, adding to the city’s global allure.
Famous Cats in Istanbul
There have been a few cats in Istanbul that have reached legendary proportions!
The first one was Tombili from the Kadıkoy district, a chubby cat that liked to recline on the sidewalk in a rather amusing manner. It became an internet sensation when a picture of her lounging on the sidewalk went viral and spawned numerous memes. The same pose is now commemorated with a bronze statue.
Just to show you how awesome Istanbul is, this statue goes with a short story.
A few weeks after it was erected in 2016, the statue was stolen! The municipality reported that on Twitter and a huge public outcry followed.
Apparently, the thieves felt so guilty that soon after they returned the statue!
You can visit the statue in Istanbul at this address.
Gli was a black cat born and raised in Istanbul’s top attraction – the church, turned mosque, turned museum, turned mosque again: Hagia Sophia. See if you can pray in Hagia Sophia.
Gli became ultra famous when Barack Obama visited Hagia Sophia in 2009 and petted Gli near the then-museum. It has its own Instagram account @hagiasophiacat with over 108.000 followers!
Gli passed away in 2020, but her memory lives on!
You can visit Gli’s grave in the garden of Hagia Sophia.
More famous cats and heartwarming stories
There are like 100 famous cats in Istanbul that have blown up in social media popularity over the years. It would take a whole book just to cover them all. Here’s a good short list of 10 such famous cats in Istanbul.
Movies about the cats of Istanbul
A pivotal moment in Istanbul’s cat’s world notoriety was in 2016 when an award-winning documentary named “Kedi” (the Turkish word for cat) was published. It follows the lives of 7 of Istanbul’s cats. Watch the trailer here. The full movie is on Youtube Premium (arghh).
Can you pet the cats in Istanbul?
Are you a cat lover? You’ve come to the end of this blog post, so my bet is that yeah, you’re definitely a cat addict!
You will meet many cats in Istanbul and will surely want to pet them. But how? Well, here’s a few tips:
- Judge the cat’s interest: Does it move away when you pst-pst-pst? Not interested. Does it wave its tail and stretch its back? Approach!
- Crouch down to get on the cat’s level. Slowly bring your hand closer so the cat can sniff you.
- Gauge interest again: If the cat doesn’t like you, trying to pet it may result in scratches. Don’t force it. Instead, keep your hand in front of the cat for a few seconds and chances are it will pet itself on you!
Remember: Cats have a mind of their own and you cannot change it! Cats are the masters of humans, not the other way around!