Cats rule in Istanbul (and dogs to a lesser degree)

stray cat sleeping on books in istanbul

One of the oddest things I’ve seen on my travels: pet food dispensing machines for stray cats and dogs! In Istanbul, stray cats are treated like kings and queens, while stray dogs are also treated well — but not always quite as well. There is a reason.

Why do cats rule in Instanbul?

Cats became ubiquitous during the Ottoman empire initially as a way to deal with rats and mice. But the more important reason that Turks are impartial to felines is because the Islamic faith prohibits persecuting or killing cats. Since Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country, cats enjoy freedom all over the city.

Kindness to cats is not unique to Turkey. It’s also a feature in other Muslim majority countries, such as Morocco. It can indeed become overwhelming with so many strays running around. In fact, one of my least favorite smells in Morocco was in Chefchaouen, the Blue City, which reeked of cat urine and spray. However, in Istanbul, we’ve witnessed regular street cleanings. The stray smell is nowhere near overpowering.

What about dogs?

Mass killings of dogs have occurred throughout Istanbul’s history in order to control the population. One time, the dogs were rounded up and put on an island on the Marmar Sea without food or fresh water. They died a slow death, their howls heard wafting over the water back to the city.

Today those cullings don’t happen, although there is always a debate about what to do with street dogs since they leave more of a mess and Islam does not ban their killing.

When Turkey requested to join the European Union, it passed an animal protection law that prohibits all cullings.

Today, veterinarians spay and neuter strays and return the dogs to the streets. Cats are not fixed, as that would be considered persecution, which again, is banned in Islam.

Fun fact: former U.S. president Barack Obama visited Hagia Sophia in 2020 (one of Istanbul’s most important sites) and he petted a cat that lived there. Gli the mosque cat became an international celebrity after Obama’s visit. Gli later died from causes related to old age.

Meat & shelter

In addition to the food and water left out for stray cats and dogs, there are housing constructs for cats. Boxes of wood or cardboard give felines homes in neighborhoods. It’s a cat house – just like a western dog house. I haven’t seen any such structures in Istanbul for dogs, but I’ve read they exist.

Also, cats that live in neighborhoods with butchers seem especially pleased as business owners regularly give the cats scraps of meat. Late at night, when dinner crowds are gone, restaurants give cats leftovers.

There is no fighting between the cats — as they are used to being fed and cared for. No dog fights, either.

In fact, regular feeding is one theory why the street dogs don’t bark in Istanbul: they associate humans as providing their needs of food and water and so they have no need for aggression on any level. They have no need to guard anything. We’ve never heard a dog bark here. It sounds as good a theory as any because in most other countries, like the Philippines or Mexico or India, where street dogs fend for themselves, street dog barking is incessant. It probably also helps that street dogs in Istanbul are fixed.

cat shelters in instanbul top; cats eat restaurant scraps bottom

Love for all

It’s beautiful to witness locals feeding and caring for strays. Just yesterday I watched a woman stoop down to pet a stray dog relaxing at a train station. The dog was so happy it put its paw on her arm to pet her back.

Sometimes a stray cat will rub against my legs. I need to step away when this happens because I’m allergic to cats. Still, I like them. I once saved a kitten’s life and he was with me for many years. I once had the best dog in the world, too.

So as an animal lover, to witness love for all strays in Istanbul is moving. And I’m not alone in this feeling. I’ve seen many tourists taking pictures of stray but happy cats and dogs all over the city.

Another take away for me: imagine how people might stop barking and fighting if they didn’t have to worry about where to get their next meal or how to keep themselves sheltered.

Thanks for reading, “Cats rule in Istanbul (and dogs to a lesser degree).”

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