Bodega Cats of NYC

Caitlin Dempsey


A grey tabby with a white muzzle and chest lying on a red tiled floor in front of rows of candy in boxes in a deli.

New York City is known for its bodegas. There are over 10,000 of these small and tightly packed deli/convenience stores that serve as an important local shopping place for residents to pick up sandwiches and bagels along with a sundry of essential foods and dry goods.

Unfortunately all those bags of rice, snacks, and other foods also attract another of NYC’s famous residents: rodents. Driven by easy access to food and plenty of nesting spots, New York City is known for its large rat and mouse population. A 2014 study estimated the number of rats in New York City to be about 2 million.

Cultural memes about rats in NYC include that infamous rat dragging a whole slice of pizza down subway steps. As comical as some of these rodent encounters are, rats also leave behind droppings and can spread disease. For example, the NYC Department of Health reports that leptospirosis is most often caused by the urine of infected rats.

Stencil and spray paint art of a rat wearing a backpack riding a scooter that says "I heart NYC"
Street art of a rat riding a scooter stenciled onto a sidewalk in midtown NYC. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Using cats to keep the rats away in NYC bodegas

As with any established selling food, keeping bodegas free from rats that can destroy food and be a health hazard is a priority for these store owners.

Traps and poisons are methods that can be used to help control the rat population. Many bodega owners, however, turn to a cuter, fluffier, and less toxic option: the bodega cat. Like library cats and barn cats, bodega cats are considered to be “working cats” who are tasked with chasing away any rats and mice from the store.

A grey tabby with a white muzzle and chest lying on a red tiled floor in front of rows of candy in boxes in a deli.
A bodega cat lies in front of the counter in a bodega in Manhattan. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Enter one of NYC’s many bodegas and you might come across a cat lurking in the aisles or taking a nap on one of the shelves. More than just a source of awe factor, these cats with a purpose — bodega cats are used to deter the presence of rodents in these small stores.

While studies have been mixed about whether or not cats are effective at rodent control, many bodega owners swear by their effectiveness. A 2018 study by researchers found that while cats were ineffective at capturing rats, the presence of felines did result in rats moving out of the space.

Are bodega cats legal?

While technically it’s against New York City’s Department of Heath code (NYCHC 81.25) to keep a cat or any other live animal (excluding fish in fish tanks) inside any place that sells or prepares food, many bodega owners prefer to keep these felines around as they believe they are more effective and safer than laying down traps or poison. Deterring rats from evening entering a bodega due to the presence of a cat means that there is less chance of a rodent leaving behind droppings or dying underneath a shelf or appliance after ingesting rat poison.

A screenshot of a section of a table from the NYC health department showing fines for food establishments.
Fines for evidence of rodents are similar to the fines for having a live animal, such as a bodega cat.

With fines for having evidence of rodents the same as having a cat, various articles quote bodega owners who swear by the effectiveness of bodega cats and they would rather run the risk of being fined for having a feline over risking a rat infestation and lost inventory being eaten by rodents. Fans of the presence of bodega cats also often argue that cats are cleaner than rodent droppings and allergies can be controlled.

Despite petitions and other attempts to legalize bodega cats, the New York City Heath Department continue to maintain their presence is a violation and a potential health hazard.

A gray tabby with a white muzzle sleeps in a bodega on top of an orange litter product box.
A bodega cat sleeps on cat litter products in an aisle in the West Village in NYC. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

There are also some detractors that do complain about hygiene and allergies when it comes to bodega cats. One woman who posted a one-star review on Yelp after encountering a bodega cat soon found herself facing a major backlash launched by bodega cat supporters.

These bodega cats also have the backing of many NYC city residents who are thrilled at encountering these felines who serve as a combination sheriff and official greeter of their neighborhood bodega. There are numerous social media accounts dedicated to posting pictures of these celebrated NYC cats and plenty of articles have been written about these deli cats. Bodega cats are considered a cultural symbol of the Big Apple among many ardent NYC residents and tourists.


Auerbach, J. (2014). Does New York City really have as many rats as people?. Significance11(4), 22-27.

Hammer, K. (2007, December 21). To Dismay of Inspectors, Prowling Cats Keep Rodents on the Run at City Delis. NY Times.

Parsons, M. H., Banks, P. B., Deutsch, M. A., & Munshi-South, J. (2018). Temporal and space-use changes by rats in response to predation by feral cats in an urban ecosystem. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 146.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey holds both a master's in Geography from UCLA and a Master of Library and Information Science. She is the editor of and an avid researcher of geography and feline topics. A lifelong cat owner, Caitlin currently has three rescued cats: an orange tabby, a gray tabby, and a black cat.