Copyright 2008, Sarah Hartwell

DEFRA, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has just issued a 26 page Code of Practice leaflet to remind pet owners of their responsibilities under the 2006 Animal Welfare Act. We won't be fined for breaking the rules but failure to comply may be used in animal cruelty prosecutions. My cats weren't included in the consultation so their views are presented here .....

"It is your responsibility to read the complete Code of Practice to fully understand your cat's welfare needs and what the law requires you to do."

At its most basic, the law requires me to provide shelter, a suitable diet and timely veterinary care. Over the last 20 odd years, my cats have made it clear felines have high expectations. The accommodation must be 5-star, the catering Michelin-starred and the meals Cordon Bleu. They beg to differ on the matter of seeing the vet. While DEFRA and I may regard the vet as a person to prevent illness and patch up sick or injured kitties, my cats view him (or her) as that nasty person who sticks a cold thermometer up their bums, needles in their neck and sometimes knocks them out cold, only for them to wake up minus a few bits and pieces. Had they been involved in the 8 week consultation, the thermometer would probably be inserted up the vet's bum.

"It is your responsibility to provide opportunities for your cat to satisfy all of its behavioural needs, such as play and companionship."

Much as my cats would enjoy 24 hour companionship with me waiting on them paw and foot on their every need and whim, at some point in they day I also have to go to work to earn money to satisfy the requirement to provide veterinary care and a suitable diet. Kitty III has a behavioural need to chase a piece of string pulled round the house. This is a good way of offsetting her tendency to gain weight, but I seem to do most of the running round (offsetting my tendency to gain weight) while Kitty rolls around on the floor grabbing at the string whenever it comes within reach. This must be juggled with Mustard's need for companionship, to whit, lodging herself under my chin and purring loudly whenever I sit down (this being very good for my posture, but necessitates using a straw when drinking anything).

Another opportunity for play and companionship is bed time. There are some play requirements that should not be expected of owners at 2 a.m. never mind a behavioural requirement for one cat to take up as much space as possible on the bed while the other fidgets under the duvet.

Owners must provide suitable toys, entertainment and mental stimulation. "You should ensure that your cat has enough mental stimulation for you and from its environment to avoid boredom and frustration."

In common with most of my cat-owning friends, my house is littered with things they like to play with. These include purpose-made cat toys that are generally regarded with derision by the feline population of my home. I have, on occasion, woken to hear a jingly ball being chased around only to realise it is being played with by the local stray cat while my pair roll their eyes with an "oh puh-leeeze" expression. Much more interesting are the drawers on the new divan bed. Quite how Mustard managed to get into a closed drawer and be stuck under the bed is a mystery, but Kitty's ability to pull the drawer open may have something to do with it. Several balls of wool have been sacrificed to the entertainment and stimulation cause.

Visitors may be disconcerted by the jingly ball in the bath tub. Sometimes Kitty likes to chase it round the tub, once she's finished torturing the plug-chain. Much stimulation is provided by rearranging the ornaments on the windowsills. I envy a friend's dad whose cat actually puts cat toys in his cat bed when not in use! In my home, nocturnal trips to the bathroom involve an obstacle course where one false step results in the human stepping on a cunningly placed ping-pong ball and doing cartoon-like windmilling of arms and legs in order to stay upright.

Owners must provide a "suitable place to live" including "somewhere suitable to go to the toilet".

According to my furry dictators, the suitable living place would be my bed and chairs. My lap features high up on their list of preferences, especially when I am trying to crochet or eat. As for a suitable toilet, Mustard seems to view the rug and the cover on the spare bed as an option even though there is a conveniently sited and very clean litter tray on the corner of the landing.

I seem to have such a suitable place to live that several stray and unwanted neighbourhood cats have moved in over the years. Spook, a grey cat unwanted by the person who had inherited him, politely installed himself under the spare bed. Tortie Motley installed herself on my lap after neighbours decided she was surplus to requirements. Thenie, the black fluffy, migrated from a 4-cat household to my 2-cat household to make an average of two 3-cat household by agreement with her former owners. Currently a black shorthair pops in at night to sleep and finish the leftovers, but is too shy to introduce itself. I think the proof of the suitability is in the number of cats queuing up whenever they detect a vacancy.

Cats need opportunities to climb and jump, such as a simple 'platform' type bed or safe access to shelves and the tops of cupboards.

In addition to my shelves, sofas, kitchen counters, the edge of the bath and the top of the cistern, Kitty III would like to include unimpeded access to the storage drawers of my divan bed. You see, cats also like to burrow into things. Kitty is far more interested in getting under the sofa and wedging herself under the spare bed than in jumping or climbing. The highest she'll venture is my bed or one of the tables. Maybe she doesn't have a head for heights. Mustard, meanwhile, has sometimes been found on the top of tall bookcases though this seems related to her scaredy-cat nature. Thenie liked to rest on a tree branch or garage roof and Motley was a firm believer in the garage roof.

On diet, it advises fresh food every day but warns "an obese cat is an unhealthy cat" adding "it is a good idea in a 'greedy' cat to have the measured food divided up into a number of meals per day".

This advice evidently comes from someone who hasn't tried to juggle the dietary habits of co-habiting cats with different appetites! Having come from a household where they got 30 minutes to eat a meal and were then put outdoors, Kitty III and Mustard arrived complete with a certain insecurity about food availability. After 6 months, Mustard has adapted to the idea that there is always some food around. This contrasts with Kitty who clears the bowl and then clears anything Mustard has left for later. Consequently, Kitty is starting to resemble a small Shetland pony. My only recourse is to find flavours Mustard likes, but Kitty isn't keen on.

"Cats that are not very tame, such as some farm cats, may prefer to live outdoors in more basic shelter but you still need to look after them." Correction. Cats that are not very tame may wish to sneak in at night, clean the food bowls and leave fur on the armchair. While they may vanish when they hear you approach, they would nevertheless appreciate (a) gourmet meals, (b) softer cushions and (c) the central heating left on overnight. At least that's been my experience.

DEFRA gives a detailed description of what constitutes normal behaviour - such as scratching and clawing - and tells owners to "watch your cat closely for signs of stress or changes in behaviour". Mustard's session of peeing on the spare bed was stressful for us both and has resulted in the purchase of a large plastic sheet to cover the spare bed. Unfortunately Mustard is scared of her own shadow. Any strange noise or unusual shadow will send her fleeing for cover. The sight of a neighbour's cat through a window will cause her to pee on the bed as a territorial marker. The scratch of a branch on a window pane will send her hurtling to the top of a bookcase. Quite how this little bundle of nerves managed 11 years as a mainly outdoor cat is a mystery to me. I'm thinking of enrolling her on stress-management and self-esteem courses.

"Dogs should be introduced to cats very carefully; the dog should be held safely on a lead at first so that it cannot chase the cat" ... except when said cat is Thenie and she waltzes up and thumps it on the nose; or Kitty I who waltzes into the dog's home, hits the resident black Labrador and eats its food. In some cases, a whimpering dog would much rather be off the lead so it can flee back home after the tabby terror has introduced herself by thumping it. There have been occasions where a startled dog owner is holding a lead that leads under my car where a once confident mongrel is now huddled and quivering until someone removes the cat. The cat, meanwhile, is as close to laughing as it is possible for a cat to get.

The Code of Practice notes that cats are solitary creatures and the most common cause of stress is "coming into close contact with other cats they do not like". Unfortunately the neighbourhood is full of cats Mustard doesn't like or is fearful of even when they are only visible through a pane of glass in an upstairs window. This is odd because Mustard originally lived in a 4-cat household along with a dog. These days, it's just me, the somewhat neurotic Mustard and the rather rotund Kitty III who looks like she has swallowed a rugby ball whole. However, should any human venture into this cosy setting, Mustard will pee on something while Kitty while transform herself into a furry statue wedged between the sofa and the wall. In spite of these episodes of feline stress, it's likely to be the human member who'll end up on medication!

Thanks for the Code of Practice DEFRA, but somehow I don't think anyone consulted the cats!