Talk to the Tail: Adventures in Cat Ownership and Beyond (9 page)

BOOK: Talk to the Tail: Adventures in Cat Ownership and Beyond
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Everything had been going well for Poppy until she went to Crufts – at least, that was the way her owner, Sandra, saw it. Poppy had been following her diet and exercise programme for six months and, while there had been a few minor transgressions, the odd small piece of ham here and there at dinnertime, the improvement had been noticeable and Poppy’s weight had dropped from 58 kilograms to 53.5. What better way to reward her, Sandra thought, than to show her off in the Pedigree Awareness category of the world’s biggest canine gathering?

So maybe passers-by did sometimes stop and say that Poppy’s back was so big a person could eat their dinner off it; what of it? No one at the world’s biggest dog show could deny she was a fine specimen, despite those few extra pounds. It had been a terrific day – right up until the moment when Sandra returned to Poppy’s pen to be told that some children had dropped a chocolate muffin into it, which five-year-old Poppy had summarily gobbled up. As Sandra pointed out, a Japanese pinto akita was never going to be a ‘high-energy’ dog, but it was such a shame, since Poppy had seemed happier, more alert before then.

If pushed, I would have had to confess that, until meeting Poppy, I hadn’t realised that a Japanese pinto akita
a dog. If anything, I’d have pegged it as a small car, renowned for its tight turning circle and the smart, bespectacled and be-suited women populating its marketing campaign. I wasn’t sure exactly what the dimensions of Poppy’s turning circle were, but I would guess from looking at her now that they wouldn’t have impressed the presenters of
Top Gear
. She looked like an unusually large Alsatian crossed with a posh skittle. These, however, were observations I was careful to keep to myself under the fraught circumstances.

Sitting across from me in a chilly room in Liverpool University’s rather touchingly named Small Animal Hospital, Sandra put her head in her hands. ‘It must have been the muffin, mustn’t it?’ she asked Dr Alex German, the founder of Britain’s first ever weight-loss clinic for pets, rhetorically. Poppy, a dog that Sandra had told me was ‘clever’ and hence ‘easily bored’, sat passively at her feet, alongside the scales that had just revealed she had gained a kilogram since her last visit. To me, this was a whole new concept in weight gain. Perhaps a whole basket of muffins could do this much damage, but
? Really? ‘Yes, definitely the muffin. There was nothing else,’ Sandra continued. Nothing apart from the daily 370g of Royal Canin food – a special formula prescribed by German to provide Poppy with protein, vitamins, minerals and L carnitine, an ingredient that speeds up the metabolism and preserves lean tissue during weight loss.

But suddenly Sandra seemed unsure. She knew she had been strict with Poppy, feeding her separately from her other dogs and walking her for up to an hour on weekdays and two hours every weekend, losing two stone herself in the process. But there had been signs that her husband, Charles, wasn’t quite so committed. German had already had to reprimand him, on a recent visit to the clinic, for letting Poppy help herself to large pieces of leftover chicken. Now Sandra became suddenly worried about further indulgences. ‘He’s just a bit soft,’ she said. ‘He feeds her the way a granny would feed a small child.’

A few moments later, after Sandra had left, explaining as she did to Poppy that they ‘must have some serious words with Daddy’, Alex shook his head. ‘This happens every so often with joint owners. One will be committed to the programme, but the other just won’t take it seriously. What people have to realise is that to get your pet to lose weight is hard work. It takes all-round discipline.’

I’d been sent to meet Alex by the
Daily Telegraph
newspaper, who’d asked me to write an article about the phenomenon of fat pets, after a report had come out suggesting that 40 per cent of Britain’s cats and dogs were overweight, and Petplan, a company that provides insurance for 80,000 pets in the UK, had announced a 60 per cent surge in obesity-related claims for pet health problems in the previous five years. According to Alex, the people of Britain were ‘taking less exercise and eating more meals’ which meant our pets were getting less exercise and more titbits.

During the course of my research, I’d spoken to the owners of Benji, a formerly gargantuan ginger and white Tom from Hampshire whose profound inertia left him persecuted by the animal they referred to as his ‘brother’, a rabbit who would dive-bomb his enormous frame when he was least expecting it. I’d also heard the story of a dog who ‘couldn’t get enough’ of the faecal pellets that his owner’s rabbit left lying around the house and a parrot who gorged itself on ‘nothing but pizza and pasta’.

I had to own up to a personal interest in the story, too. I’ve always had a fondness for roly-poly cats and, with Winter Pablo on the rise, rather liked the idea of meeting some other family-sized moggies. If my editor had also mentioned upon commissioning me there was a chance I’d meet a giant, pizza-loving parrot, I would probably have waived my fee on the spot, but on the whole my enthusiasm for overweight pets didn’t extend much further than the feline. A fat dog seemed shameful and sad, but for some reason a plump cat seemed like one of the hallmarks of any good winter living room, alongside a half-open Dickens novel, a log fire and an elderly relative snoring on an armchair with a string of Werthers Original-flavoured drool hanging from his mouth. After an hour with Alex, however, I was beginning to change my mind quite drastically.

‘We had a Siamese here that should have been five kilograms but weighed more than thirteen,’ he told me. ‘A lot of people with overweight or obese pets just see them as cuddly. But obesity can lead to numerous illnesses, such as diabetes in cats, osteoarthritis in dogs and pancreatitis, bladder stones and cardio-respiratory and orthopaedic diseases in both.’ Something – I’m not quite sure what – about his expression told me this was not the time to mention the part-joking conversation I’d had in the pub with my friend Tom not long ago about ‘growing’ our cats.

After Poppy had left, a black cat called Molly was brought into the room. At one point, said her owner, Michelle, Molly’s stomach used to drag along the floor when she walked, which wasn’t often. ‘I used to poke her with a stick and she wouldn’t move. She was a big fan of cheese and onion crisps and liked to eat the butter off toast, but she had really greasy fur and dandruff as well.’ Molly’s weight loss from 6.9 to 6.15 kilograms had left her fur loose around her shoulders. Her head seemed to belong to another, much daintier black cat. That said, unlike Smokey, the grey cat I met immediately after her, she had never looked ‘like a seal’, which is how her owners, Clive and Margaret from Wales, described the X-ray they were given of their pet upon first visiting the clinic. In the eight months since then, Smokey’s chest had been reduced by fifteen centimetres in diameter and she had been able to get upstairs unassisted for the first time in years.

‘Have you thought of holding cat aerobic classes?’ Margaret asked Shelley, Alex’s assistant. ‘No, I think that might be a bit difficult to arrange,’ replied Shelley. During this exchange, I’d been lost in a daydream about struggling to help an obese Pablo into a miniature stairlift, so there had been a satellite delay before it registered. I chuckled, belatedly, but it occurred to me that neither Margaret nor Shelley was entirely joking. Alex had, after all, earlier told me about another patient, a gluttonous two-year-old Labrador called Bruce, who regularly attended a water aerobics session in Southampton called ‘Doggypaddles’, held in a luxury hydrotherapy pool purpose-built for dogs.

Alex told me about the importance of exercise for cats – how they are wrongly perceived as low-maintenance animals and their need for recreation is underestimated. Flashing on a mental image of Ralph meowing his own name outside the bedroom window while Shipley angrily demanded that I wipe the rain off his back with a rose-scented tissue, I tried to think of a time when I’d perceived my cats as low-maintenance, but came up with a blank. Having recently bought them a packet of Zoom-Around-The-Room organic catnip, I also felt sure in saying they were getting a fair amount of exercise. Nonetheless, I was a little nervous as I showed Alex a picture of Pablo on my mobile phone.

Did Alex think Pablo looked overweight, I wondered.

‘Hard to say, looking at this picture. I’d really need to feel around his ribs,’ said Alex. A picture popped into my head of Alex feeling Pablo’s ribs, and Pablo immediately rolling on his back and sticking his tongue out even further than usual, while other, more sophisticated obese cats expressed their disapproval. For the third or fourth time that day, I gave thanks that I hadn’t brought Pablo to Liverpool with me.

‘Come in here a moment,’ said Alex, beckoning me through to his office. He double-clicked his computer’s mouse and a short film appeared on his monitor showing a tortoiseshell cat hurling itself maniacally back and forth, head over heels, in front of a battery-operated toy: a yellow plastic stand with a bendy antennae protruding from it, and a small chunk of fur on the end of that. In the background, the buzz of human voices could be heard. ‘That’s my cat, Clarence,’ said Alex. The toy, he said, was a Japanese contraption called the Panic Mouse, and had been instrumental in helping reduce Clarence’s weight. To illustrate, Alex pointed to a picture on his corkboard of a younger Clarence, presumably taken around the time Clarence was most liberally exploiting the perks of his job as restaurant critic for the
Financial Times
. ‘Clarence has really been a bit of a guinea pig for the whole clinic,’ added Alex, who, I was slightly disappointed to find, was yet to put an actual guinea pig on his weight loss programme.


Twenty minutes after I arrived home from Liverpool, I logged on to and, for the not incon siderable sum of £22.99, purchased a Panic Mouse. ‘Revolutionary in design, The Panic Mouse’s built-in computer board signals a battery-powered motor, creating random and unpredictable ‘mouse-like’ movements,’ I was assured by the website. ‘More than just toys for cats, Panic Mouse interactive cat toys provide hours of fun for both pet and owner. The plastic wand bends and contorts, bouncing back to its original form. The illusive object of cat curiosity: an artificial fur pouch that feels and acts like a real mouse.’ Two days later, as I signed for the Panic Mouse and set it down on the kitchen counter, Shipley quickly and vocally arrived on the scene, followed more languidly by Bootsy and Ralph.

It was early days, but I couldn’t help asking myself the burning question that had been playing on my mind: could it really be true? Was really telling the truth in saying that their toy was ‘the much meowed-for answer for playful cats everywhere’?

‘What’s this?’ asked Shipley, rubbing the side of his face on the Panic Mouse’s box, then sitting on top of it in his oven-ready chicken pose. Mail time is always a time of day when Shipley feels his input, as an expert on anything pulped, is invaluable, and he will usually help me sort through packages by sitting in a cardboard box or gnawing at a jiffy bag. He also knows that I often buy him presents from a big cat toy shop called, some of which he’s found very tasty, though he rarely eats them all in one go. Some of those he’s enjoyed most have included Rose Tremain’s
Sacred Country
and Joseph Heller’s
, though he was not so keen on Don DeLillo’s
Great Jones Street
, owing to its chewy, laminated American jacket.

‘It’s a Panic Mouse,’ I replied. ‘It’s going to be really good – particularly since, after you’ve spent some time using it, and people pick you up, they won’t say “Aaaaarrrueegh!” any more and get shooting pains going down their arms.’

BOOK: Talk to the Tail: Adventures in Cat Ownership and Beyond
4.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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