A Very Purrculiar Practice: Reigning Cats and Dogs
Copyright 1997, Sarah Hartwell

"I'm looking for a kitten to keep our five dogs company and replace the cat we lost earlier this year," the lady caller explained.

My heart quailed at the thought. Five dogs and they wanted a kitten? What on earth did their last cat die of? I had visions of five wildly-baying, hairy great lurchers; not the sort of scenario I wanted to place any cat in, let alone an 8 week old kitten. The "Living in Harmony" leaflet didn't seem to cover the 'five hairy lurchers' scenario. On the other hand .... if it was five short-haired chihuahuas the previous cat might have died of indigestion.

"It's our practice to do a homecheck prior to placing any kittens, even to homes which have previously had cats" I explained, not relishing the thought of walking into house which, or all I knew, might well contain five Pit Bull Terriers which routinely consumed visiting cat shelter home-checkers.

"No problem," she replied, laughing, "I quite understand. I imagine the thought of a kitten in the middle of five dogs is a bit worrying, but I think you'll find them very well-behaved."

The last time anyone had described their dog as well-behaved, or rather "I don't understand it, he's usually so well-behaved!" I had ended up in the local A&E department having part of my left buttock surgically reattached. Granted the dog probably sensed my longing to lose weight, and may well have been a leading liposuction surgeon in a previous incarnation, but its efforts to help me by amputating a large portion of derriere left me feeling like the princess and the pea - unable to sit down without five cushions underneath my embroidered posterior.

On arriving at Mrs Bright's house I was not greeted by the expected five baying hairy cat-eating lurchers. In fact the only evidence of canine presence was a very badly chewed piece of tow rope of a size used to tow HGVs and a knucklebone whose dimensions suggested it had once belonged to a Brontosaurus. With some trepidation I sat down on the sofa. From the size of the dog toys, these were obviously not merely dogs that chased motorcars, these had obviously progressed to pursuing and subduing HGVs.

"Oberon! Titania! Puck! Hermia! Sandy!" called Mrs Bright.

"Sandy?" I asked rather weakly, not recognising this as a Shakespearean name.

"Short for Lysander, they're all named after characters from A Midsummer Night's Dream. My husband's idea, he's an English Lit teacher."

Five large Golden Retrievers ambled placidly into the room, single file and nose to tail. One of them picked up the tow rope and dropped it expectantly at my feet. The rest flopped down on the floor like an amiable pack of wolves. And they were big! Never mind hitching the five of them to a sled and yelling "Mush", I could have saddled any one of them and ridden it.

"They're all trials dogs, trained to retrieve hidden objects and do obedience work," she explained. "Our previous cat, Ivy, was rescued from an abusive home, but she suffered from chronic liver problems as a result of ill-treatment and had to be put to sleep over Easter. The dogs searched for her for days and are absolutely lost without her. Oberon was absolutely desolate and pined for three days."

At the sound of the cat's name, five soulful pairs of eyes looked hopefully at their owner.

"I can show you some pictures if you like," she said.

I was shown pictures of Ivy sleeping among a muddle of paws, Ivy riding on one or other of the dogs, Ivy hanging from the long-suffering dogs' paws, tails, muzzles, ears and bellies, Ivy asleep on a sleeping dog's head; Ivy and three dogs eating from a single large bowl. Ivy, in fact, seemed to rule the roost. Without a strong ruler the dogs were obviously quite lost, but the thought of a tiny kitten getting in the way of twenty well-intentioned, but huge paws still concerned me.

"Okay," I said, "I must admit that the thought of a kitten in with five dogs was rather worrying. I'm still not sure about placing an 8 week old, as even the most even-tempered dog could do a lot of damage by treading on such a small creature, but we have been trying to home an endearing and rather robust 14 week old tortie. People keep passing her by because they say the tortie markings on her face make her look ugly."

"I'm sure the dogs won't mind what she looks like, as long as she's going to boss them around and keep them in their places," exclaimed Mrs Bright.

"She is definitely a little character and I'm certain she'd boss anything around. I'm convinced that when she was born she immediately started to rearrange the rest of the world to suit her."

We decided it would be best for me to take the kitten to Mrs Bright and observe introductions; that way if things did not work out I could take her straight back with me. My worries, however, were for nothing. "Holly" waltzed in, biffed one dog on the nose (it looked astounded and then delighted, if Golden Retrievers can be said to look anything other than soppy), walked between the paws of a second, swiped the tail of a third out of its way, cuffed the muzzle of a fourth out of its food bowl and started to eat from a vast bowl of Pedigree Chum while the puzzled canine owner of the meal looked on with an expression of utter resignation. It then located the fifth dog which was snoozing under the breakfast table, and pummelled its belly fur into a comfortable nest before falling asleep behind the dogs front legs. The dog wuffled in contentment and the other four flopped down as though to say "Thank goodness for that, everything's back to normal again, there's a cat in charge."

"Goodness," said Mrs Bright, "I know the dogs are overgrown wimps, but Holly's going to run them ragged .... and they'll love every minute of it!"

Though a great weight had been lifted from my mind, I still asked to do a progress check after a week. When the day came I sat down and one of the male dogs wandered into the lounge with a kitten's head poking out of its mouth.

Before I could have a heart attack, Ms Bright said sternly "Oberon, put Holly down."

With a muffled whimper, the huge dog deposited a damp, spiky-furred kitten at my feet. The kitten looked up at the huge canine face with a look of obvious adoration and tried to climb back between the great jaws.

"He will keep on carrying her around the house like that, and what's even more worrying is that she likes it! Sometimes she falls asleep and he gets quite concerned because he can't eat or drink until she wakes up and wants to be put back down again. You should see her riding round on poor Puck, she falls fast asleep on his back or head and he daren't move in case he wakes her up. Sometimes he's stood in one spot for ages before he manages to settle down without waking her up ... sometimes you can see he's busting for a pee, he'd sooner go cross-eyed in desperation than wake Holly up. And as for the others, I begin to wonder if I need five kittens so that the dogs can look after one each. When she walks into the utility room you can see them all prick up their ears thinking 'please choose me, it's my turn'!"

The Bright household kept in touch with us regularly as Holly grew up. She still insists on being carried round the house by one of the dogs. When she went to the vet for spaying, one of them had to go in the car on the way to the vet (but was too scared to go into the waiting room), all five sat round crying all day until she came home and each one tried to present her with a gift (tow-rope, knucklebone, squeaky toy etc) on her arrival home. And whenever one of the dogs goes to the vet, Holly goes too, to provide moral support. In fact, Holly's only complaint is about being retrieved from the garden when she is trying to nap in the rhubarb patch!

(All names have been changed to protect the reputation of five trials-winning dogs!).

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