Cats: for life, not just for Christmas

Christmas is coming – so why not give a cat? They’re cheap to feed (only c. £5 a week), easy to house-train thanks to their poo-burying instincts, and easy to look after since they sleep for 18 out of 24 hours – besides, just imagine the children’s little faces when a cute, bright-eyed kitten bursts out of its box on Christmas morning!

Actually, as any responsible cat-lover knows, this is an extremely bad idea. Christmas, with all its upheaval, social excitement and dangerously chewable decorations, isn’t the best time to introduce a new animal to a household; plus kittens are not toys to be cast aside when their batteries run flat (which they won’t) or the new PlayStation game is unwrapped. They are sentient beings with rights and needs which extend far beyond the festive season – a fact which many people, sadly, still fail to grasp, judging from the influx of unwanted ‘Christmas presents’ into the animal shelters every New Year.

This doesn’t mean that children and cats can’t go together very successfully (although crawling infants and toddlers may make for an unhappy mix, with few cats likely to enjoy their clumsily enthusiastic attentions). Pet ownership teaches a lot about care, companionship and responsibility, and my own beloved cats were among the chief joys of my childhood. But the key word is responsibility, and it’s why you should NEVER give a child a kitten (or any living creature) unless you’re 100% certain that the adults in the household are fully prepared to welcome it, and to embrace its care if and when the novelty wears off – because this involves a lot more than buying a food-bowl and a weekly pack of Felix. A litter-tray, poop-scoop and poo-bags are fundamental requirements, along with plentiful supplies of cat-litter – an additional ongoing expense if the cat will live permanently indoors – because kittens produce copious pee and amazingly large stinky poos, necessitating at least a daily clean-out if the house isn’t to reek; and in my experience, fresh litter provokes an ‘Ooh, goody!’ response and an immediate, gleeful evacuation demanding yet another session with the poop-scoop.

Then there are the vet bills, at the very least for inoculations (with annual boosters) and neutering, to safeguard the cat’s health and prevent further additions to the unwanted feline population – so an insurance policy is a wise precaution against the hefty expenses often incurred for dealing with accidents or illness. If the cat goes outdoors it will pick up fleas and require disinfesting (as may the house!), as well as regular worming if it hunts and eats rodents or birds. So, based on our healthy, ‘free-range’ hunting tom with pet insurance and a daily dose of special dental biscuits to keep his teeth clean, this all adds up to annual maintenance costs of c. £250 on top of c. £300 for food and mineral water (he won’t drink fluoridated tap water) – an average of more than £10 a week to keep Henry Wowler in fine fettle. This might be modest compared to the cost of keeping a large dog, but it may still be a significant burden on a cash-strapped family’s budget – a vital factor to consider before adding a cat to a household. And of course it doesn’t take into account things like a pet-carrier (essential for vet visits, and can double up as a cat-bedroom), or optional extras like toys and scratching posts. (It may not be worth shelling out on an expensive bed, since cats are notorious for preferring to sleep in the box it came in!).

Last but not least is the care. Sure, adult cats spend most of their lives looking out of the window, out and about doing cat-stuff, or curled up asleep – but they may expect to spend a substantial portion of this sleeping time on a person, and demand the right to do so with highly vocal persistence. Cat-children are another matter. Like any young creature, kittens are tiny concentrations of energy, as demanding of attention as a human infant but capable of damaging mischief a baby could never achieve – climbing up wallpaper and curtains, pooing in plant-pots (when they aren’t chewing the leaves), shredding furniture and carpets, knocking ornaments off high shelves – the list is endless. Our 12-week-old Wowler required five to six hours of play every morning before he would finally collapse, (and woe betide me – and the house – if I tried to deny him), plus another couple of hours in the evening. Admittedly it was great fun, albeit more so for Henry than for us – the attraction of trailing a string round the floor, rolling balls and jiggling catnip mousies does pall after a while. Then, unless you acquire one of those sad hairless breeds, there’s the matter of fur. Long-hairs need regular grooming to stop their coats getting matted, and even short-hairs benefit from periodic fine-tooth combing to check for fleas and reduce the amount of sheddings which will otherwise blanket the house, especially in summer. Cat under-fur is so fine that it floats on the air and gets into places pussy never goes, as I discovered on taking a dress never worn in Wowler’s presence from the wardrobe. Yes, it’s true that ‘everything in a house with a cat IS a cat’ – so sharing an abode with a feline may add considerably to the burden of housework, unless the residents are content to wear, eat and sleep in their pet as well as look after it.

So the real message is, ‘DON’T give a cat for Christmas’. Instead, give cat-related gifts from welfare charities like the Cats Protection League or RSPCA. Or, if you’re absolutely certain that someone truly wants a feline companion and is willing and able to care for it properly, wait until early 2015 – because then the rescue centres will be overflowing with misguided ‘Christmas presents’ desperately needing new homes.

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