REIGNING CATS AND DOGS

Who decides where to live - you or your pet? Whether they are best friends or worst enemies, animals have much more influence than home owners think. Lesley Gillilan reports
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The Independent Culture
Would you send your child to an orphanage to secure the home of your dreams? Of course not. But would you consider getting rid of your beloved Maine Coon cat or your adorable Bichon Frise puppy? While few properties are for sale only to the childless, many more are forbidden to those with four-legged friends.

This does not please the organisers of National Pet Week, which started yesterday. The British Veterinary Association and the Society for Companion Animal Studies, two of its sponsors, vigorously defend the right of any responsible person to share their lives and living rooms with a socially acceptable pet. They point to research which shows that owning animals has a positive effect on our physical, psychological and social well-being. But many housing providers - landlords, freeholders and local authorities - aren't convinced by the argument.

Pet regulations are a fairly common element of leasehold agreements and they are standard to the majority of tenancies. The owners of Britain's 7 million cats, 6 million dogs and 1.4 million rabbits and budgies may have problems finding a pet-friendly home. Take, for example, Bliss Mill in rural Oxfordshire. The Grade II* listed Victorian tweed mill was converted into 46 luxury apartments in 1988. At pounds 95,000 plus, they were described as being ideal for weekend escapists who want to spend their time fishing, golfing or riding. Exercising the dog, however, is not an option - a strict "no pets" policy is written into the leasehold agreements.

Owners might get away with a well-behaved goldfish, but dogs and cats are not welcome. In theory the management company can make discretionary allowance, but in practice pet prohibition is rigidly upheld. "Unfortunately, some of the residents are aggressively anti-animal," says sales negotiator Sheila McDaniel. The place may be surrounded by fields of livestock, but people don't want domesticated creatures free-ranging around the mill's six acres, fouling up the tennis courts and sharpening claws on the ornamental shrubbery - not even if they are confined to one of the small, private gardens.

Since its launch, the development has crippled two companies; both went into receivership. Sales picked up when a receiver took over the management last year and only two apartments now remain unsold. But, according to Sheila, the no-pet clause has slowed demand and cost Bliss Mill 20 per cent of potential sales.

"I can think of at least 15 really keen buyers who backed out when they realised they couldn't keep animals here." In some cases, the contracts were all but signed when the cat was let out of the bag, so to speak. Buyers than had to make an agonising choice between the keys to a pounds 100,000 flat in a magnificent Cotswold landmark, and the companionship of, say, a North American Maine Coon or an elderly corgi. The pet usually won. "Pets are a lifeline for a lot of people," says Sheila (owner of four frisky German Shepherd dogs). "Banning them is like asking buyers to get rid of their children."

In general, pets and housing dilemmas are more prevalent in cities, where space - and particularly outside space - is at a premium. In central London, leases with a "no animals, birds or reptiles" clause are common. Knight Frank is currently selling a leasehold Mayfair property at pounds 450,000, which stipulates no pets or children under 12. A property in Chelsea only allows dogs "no bigger than a Jack Russell."

"In most cases, the rules are not enforced," says estate agency Howard Elston of Chesterfield. "They are there to protect both the freeholder and the residents against nuisance pets. If somebody keeps a dog that barks all night or eats a neighbour's baby, the estate can then refer to the agreement to get rid of the offending animal." Well-behaved pets can also be used as an excuse to oust a barking resident. Tenants should seek prior permission to keep a pet - even if it is to replace a deceased one.

John Stapleton and Howard Carter-Bennett, both pensioners, were forced to leave their mobile home in Cornwall when they replaced their deceased poodle with a six-month-old Bichon Frise called Willoughby. The site owners charged them with breaching new regulations which forbid the replacement of existing pets without prior permission. John and Howard, who were "prepared to commit suicide rather than lose Willoughby", were asked to give up the dog or leave. John, Howard and Willoughby moved on.

Vanessa Rhyss, of London lettings agency Beaney Pearce, says she recently dealt with a "desperate" client who had been rejected by landlords so many times she was thinking of giving up her dog. Vanessa (owner of a West Highland terrier) persevered on her behalf and eventually found sympathetic accommodation.

Permission, she says, might be subject to a larger deposit to cover pet damage and will occasionally be dependent on providing references. Landlords want to know if a would-be-tenant's pet has a proven record of good, clean behaviour. Usually, they are more amenable to housing small dogs than large, grizzly-looking varieties. Cats are easier to accommodate.

This might explain why the ratio of moggies to doggies has increased considerably in favour of cats in recent years. Cats are regarded as the ultimate low-maintenance pet - independent, self-cleaning, running on economy-fuel - and housing issues have no doubt played a part in their rise to the pinnacle of pet popularity. "Dogs are less able to cope with a solitary nine-to-five lifestyle," says Carina Norris, science editor of Wild About Animals magazine. When owners are at work, cats - who spend around 17 hours a day in dreamland - can nip in and out of cat-flaps and amuse themselves by tearing lumps out of the soft furnishing. Dogs, on the other hand, can get "bored, frustrated and even destructive."

This is where animals can have a negative effect on the physical, psychological and social well-being of pet owners' neighbours. According to a Which? report, dogs are the fifth most common cause of neighbourhood contention. Noise tops the league, but barking is included in a cacophony of common disturbances.

Bridget Canavan, a north London co-ordinator for Mediation UK - the United Nations of garden fence wars - say it's not just dogs that cause tension. She has stepped into the fray of angry disputes involving screeching Mynah birds, urban ponies, garden-dwelling poultry and, of course, cats. "In cat cases, the arguments are nearly always over fouling or ownership - cats are very fickle with their affections," she says. "With dogs, persistent barking and whining is usually the cause. And rich dogs bark just as loudly and as often as poor ones."

One woman I spoke to (an estate agent who prefers to remain nameless) lives next door to three highly-strung dachshunds. They bark constantly, day and night. She could make an official complaint to the local authority who have statuary powers to intervene. But, be warned, this could be a bad move if you are planning to sell your home. Once reported, you are obliged to disclose the problem to a potential buyer.

In March, an historic court case ordered pensioner Violet Lamb to pay pounds 30,000 in costs and compensation to the buyers of her four- bedroom house in Hampshire, who sued because she omitted to tell them about trouble with noisy neighbours. The fact that pets were not involved is merely academic. The result would have been the same.

So, when the aforementioned woman with noisy dachsunds next door puts her house on the market, she intends to keep quiet about them. She fears, however, that the dogs will make their presence all too plain.

In other respects, unsociable animal behaviour can undermine property sales as easily as unreasonable no-pet policies - and some people have only themselves to blame. Estate agent Gareth Pargett of Winkworths in north London had a terrible time selling a flat in which the owner had devoted an entire room to a large colony of cats. The smell, he said, was appalling. Lingering signs of dog occupation can be equally off-putting. And who wants rat fanciers, python-lovers, or a pack of baying hounds over a party boundary?

Surely, then, these kinds of problems vindicate anti-pet landlords? Not according to the pets and housing group Pathway (run by five of the animal welfare campaigners behind National Pet Week), which is doggedly lobbying housing providers to make more provision for pets. They have even published a set of guidelines; these call for clearly defined rules, and "responsible" ownership which does not contravene the rights of those residents or neighbours who are not pet owners.

In essence, that means seeking permission from fellow leaseholders as well as freeholders and landlords before moving in; investing in cat flaps and pooper scoopers and buying and renting properties which provide "an adequate and comfortable living environment" for your chosen pet. According to the National Canine Defence League, habitual barking is a doggy cry for help. The Cats Protection League does not wholly approve of indoor moggies.

Buyers should always get a measure of the animals next door before exchanging contracts. And if you are vociferously anti- animal, there are still two apartments left in Bliss Mill's pet-free zone.

For a list of National Pet Week events, telephone the information line on 0181 421 6166. For a copy of 'Pets & Housing: The Way Forward' (Guidelines for Housing Providers) and advice on pet housing problems, contact Pathway, c/o The National Canine Defence League, 17 Wakley Street, London ECIV (0171 837 0006).

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