Copyright 1995, 1999 Sarah Hartwell

As all serious cat owners know, cats require a basic diet of "complete" cat food, an occasional dollop of "complementary" food and a few treats from the human larder or natures buffet a.k.a "the food chain" - anything from birds and rodents to grasshoppers, slugs and the contents of a discarded KFC family bucket. Despite our best efforts to provide a balance diet, many cats have very different ideas on what constitutes a between-bowls snack.

Take, for example, the fabric faddists - anything from the crazed wool-consuming Siamese to a lunatic linen-loving cat who will happily crunch your cotton underskirts while you're entertaining great-aunt Maud. Some of them will forgo their fabric-fix for a dose of lanolin garnish or a side-order of shredded Kleenex at mealtime. One fabric faddist kept an old sock by his bowl and took alternate bites from bowl and from sock. Others restrict themselves to chewing clothing which smell of the owner's sweat such as sports shirts and rugby socks. My old friend Squeak preferred to skip the fabric course and liked to climb into bed to lick our armpits!

Then, of course, there are the notorious rubber lovers whose tastes range from live electric cables to the gourmet tastes of the condom connoisseur whose particular preference is prophylactics. There are pernicious rumours that the latter is now pursuing a career at the Waltham Nutrition centre where he is aiding experts in the development of new varieties of food along the lines of Durex Delight and Whiskas Super-Mates while using top-shelf Rubber fetish magazines as a menu guide.

Just recently I've discovered a bubble-bath fan; not only does she eat the bubbles with great relish, she has favourite flavours and is making bathtimes such ordeals that the owner is contemplating installing a shower. The sensation of bubble-eating is probably similar to that of sherbet or fizzy lemonade. There's another noteworthy bathtime gourmet who enjoys the taste of soap!

Most mogs don't go to such extremes, known to behaviourists and pregnant women as "pica", but individual tastes can include some interesting items. Many cats enjoy dairy-based treats such as rice pudding, custard or cheese. The crunchy texture of digestive biscuits or popcorn and the salty crunchiness of crackers and crisps attracts others. Some otherwise normal moggies crave cucumber or raw mushrooms. Another specialist took to licking the emulsion off of photographs (a habit thwarted by its photographer owner who has read the alarming contents list on his supplies), licking the inside of plastic carrier bags (the thick 4p a shot carriers, not the flimsy surpermarket freebies) and also enjoyed postage stamps and envelopes, both of which use animal byproducts in the gummed backing.

In "The Cat Repair Handbook", Howard Loxton recorded the following favourite treats: asparagus, processed cheese, sausage, smoked salmon, goldfish food, lightly fried mushrooms, liver pate, marshmallows, marmite, cornflakes and milk, cooked French beans, uncooked spaghetti and dry champagne. None of the cats surveyed liked commercial treats. Writer Roger Caras had a cat which liked the taste of gold and licked wedding rings; while other cats in the household enjoyed chives, melon, tomatoes and asparagus. Grace McHattie adds sweetcorn, cauliflower, carrot, parsnip, spuds, spaghetti bolognaise, toast, yoghurt and ice cream to the list. My own Sappho costs me a fortune in lemon flavour frozen yoghurt.

Some cravings really do need to be discouraged. The cable-cruncher risked electro-convulsive therapy, wool-eaters and rubber-munchers risk intestinal blockages, sherry trifle addicts risk alcoholic poisoning if they overdo things and photograph lickers can ingest toxic substances. Many other tastes, non-toxic and indulged in moderation, won't harm a cat which eats an otherwise balanced diet. Cats which nibble vegetables or fruit (often found in the guts of favoured prey species such as mice and rabbits) are increasing their roughage intake while a couple of crisps provides salt and oil, though the demolition of entire family packs of Golden Wonder is to be discouraged since too much salt is bad for a cat.

The question is, what drives a cat to consume such a variety of uncatlike or unsuitable items? Many select organic items or items containing rendered animal parts. Cats tend to avoid sweet tasting foods and it was believed that they could not perceive sweet flavours. It is now believed that cats do have "sugar-sensitive" tastebuds, but that their "water-sensitive" tastebuds tend to override them.

Leaving aside breed-specific pica and cats' tastebuds, it appears that cats maintain a Mogon Ronay Guide, passed on by word of mouth. Cats accidentally crossing one another's path aren't simply saying "Oi! Get off my patch!" they are also saying "...and while you're getting off my patch, have you tried frozen lemon yoghurt?". The more weird and wonderful entries in the Mogon Ronay guide include woollens, rubber and photographic emulsion. The mainstream section includes cucumber, chocolate and crisps as the following cases demonstrate.

In the space of two years, ex-alley cat Scrapper became Britain's number one brand-loyal consumer of Thornton's Fudge Frappe bars. We almost bought stock-market shares in the company with the proviso that dividends were to be paid entirely in Fudge Frappe bars; well actually we did buy shares when they became available and we receive money off vouchers but that isn't much good to Scrapper who has been pushing up daisies for about 9 years now.

Before anyone sends me angry letters, I know that chocolate in large quantities is toxic to cats (please note that gourmet British choccy like Thornton's is way different than American chocolate), but Scrapper's modest and infrequent intake did not appear to harm him. After 10 years of rough living, his emphasis was firmly on quality of life not duration, and if quality of life meant a couple of scraps of Fudge Frappe bar every month then so be it.

Unlike many old cats, Scrapper's hearing remained acute and ever since scavenging a dropped 99 Flake ice cream he could detect a Mr Whippy ice cream van three streets away and developed a Pavlovian reaction to its chimes. Always willing to develop his palate, his idea of a slap-up meal was Cheese-and-Onion flavour crisps (which don't actually contain real onion which, as I well know can cause lethal anaemia in cats) and strawberry yoghurt followed by Body Shop Peppermint Foot Lotion (which contains cocoa butter) licked straight from the soles of my feet.

Scrapper drew the line at spicy foods, but Squeak delighted in spicy peanuts, Bombay Mix and Rice Crackers. We realised how she had acquired her name when she raided a bowl of cold baked beans. My enjoyment of the late night movie was severely marred by the presence of a flatulent cat. Her brother, Bubble, was a curry fan, but one commando-style raid on an unlidded saucepan left him holding a lump of courgette. Unwilling to lose face, he introduced himself to the enduring delights of the squash family.

Kitties I and II were junk food junkies. Kitty I stuck to the kiddies menu of burgers, bangers, fish fingers, mash and beans washed down with milky tea courtesy of our neighbour's offspring. Kitty II developed more specialist tastes and any Chinese takeawy had to include an additional order of 115 (House Special Fried Noodles) or 94 (Special Fried Rice). Kitty I also enjoyed a light breakfast of buttered wholemeal toast with a smear of strawberry jam or Marmite.

Affy's oddball taste was for Garlic and Coriander naan bread and she would gorge herself on this until she was sick. Her occasional foray into the specialist world of pica was restricted to biting lumps out of car tyres, though this was entirely due to psychological reasons (i.e. she had some anger to deal with) and normally only occurred after being ejected from the car for vandalising the parcel shelf. Over time, Affy diversified into liking anything that came from a human's plate (except onions) with a particular penchant for uncooked ravioli and similar types of stuffed pasta. Affy was never a small cat. She was not obese, but she was 'well-padded'.

Alcohol is poisonous to cats so I've nothing but contempt for the person who weaned his cat onto milk-and-Pernod and a premature death. Another misguided owner taught his cat to drink Campari and Soda; the cat became addicted and needed drying out. All this makes me rather uneasy about allowing Sappho to eat the cream from a Marks and Spencer Luxury Sherry Trifle (only acceptable straight from the pot). Normally she performs the function of disposing of the part of the trifle that I don't eat myself. Sometimes she gets carried away and ploughs through the cream, custard and jelly to the sherry sponge beneath. Affy once managed to get herself tipsy on red wine gravy when my dinner was interrupted by a phone call. Having witnessed the devastating effects a tipsy cat can have on a house I invested in an answerphone.

Cats' eating habits will continue to keep cat food developers, nutritionists and behaviourists in employment for many years. Only when a linguist finally manages to interpret the Mogon Ronay guide will we finally understand why linen, contraceptives or photograph albums have to be kept out of some cats' reach while the rest of use are doomed to eat only half of a 99 Flake ice cream and what's left of a trifle after the cat has finished with it.

Important Note: I must stress that all of my cats eat a balanced diet of premium quality catfood with occasional meals of cooked meat or fish with cooked potato, rice or pasta. The foodstuffs noted above comprised a very small part of their diet and all of the cats lived to ripe old ages or succumbed to conditions unrelated to diet. In the case of cats on prescription or restricted diet, they were not given treats other than those permitted by veterinary staff. In the cases of extremely aged or terminally cats, the aim was to maintain quality of life rather than longevity (to quote my veterinary clinic: "Give her whatever she enjoys, at this stage it really won't make any difference to her life expectancy.")

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