THE PURRFECT PET

A feline friend may be for life, so make sure you choose the right breed. Experts advise on qualities to look out for
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The Independent Culture
A DOG may be hailed as man's best friend, but cats are now outstripping canines as Britain's most popular pet; there are 7.2m cat owners in Britain, compared to 6.7m dog owners. Though the cross-bred moggy remains - with good reason - the choice of the majority, pedigree cats are proving irresistible to growing numbers of feline fans.

With over 100 breeds and colour varieties recognised by the archaic-sounding Governing Council of the Cat Fancy, choosing an ideal pet is far from easy. It's not just a matter of aesthetics. Prospective owners should also consider temperament and grooming needs before making an expensive and time-consuming commitment. The pedigree cats listed here cost anything from pounds 200-pounds 400 (considerably more if they are show winners), though the humble tabby is of course free from places such as the local Cat Rescue Centre.

We chose a representative sample of cat breeds available in Britain, and asked three vets to assess them as potential pets. David Taylor is author of 32 books, including The Ultimate Cat Book (Dorling Kindersley pounds 16.99). He works as a wild animal vet, travelling to zoos all over the world; where domestic cats are concerned, he describes himself as "a Birman freak". Bruce Fogal has a veterinary practice in London and has written 15 books, including The Cat's Mind (Pelham pounds 8.99). Sarah Heath, author of Why Does My Cat...? (Souvenir Press pounds 13.99), is an authority on pet counselling.

All three stressed that scientific research into temperament and breed is still in its infancy. For this survey, though, they chose the following criteria: sociability, activity and noise levels, grooming, body shape and general health of the animal.

***MACKEREL TABBY

Crossbreed; shorthair; lively, sociable; no grooming necessary. Suitable for indoor and outdoor environments. Robust. Free.

Seventy per cent of crossbred cats in Britain are mackerel tabbies. These pretty, striped cats were first brought to Britain by traders from North Africa - perhaps because they found them attractive, or possibly, says Bruce Fogal, "because they found them affable and therefore easy to trade as suitable pets for the aristocracy."

Whatever its history, this breed's predominance in modern times is due to survival of the fittest - what David Taylor calls "hybrid vigour". This is good news for pet owners who fear expensive veterinary bills. "Some of the nicest cats and best pals are crossbreeds," he says. Sarah Heath would choose a common moggy as a pet before all the thoroughbreds. "They have been bred in a haphazard way in a family situation," she says, "with lots of noise and children. They've been handled from an early stage, so they're very well adjusted."

**PERSIAN

Thoroughbred; longhair; wide range of colours and patterns. Calm, affectionate. Daily grooming. Indoor-only environment. Robust, but may suffer matting.

All our experts agreed that these are the least energetic, quietest and most independent cats. They may not be the most affectionate - Bruce Fogal says "They fantasise that they are Marlene Dietrich, and just want to be left alone" - but their aristocratic ways and lack of athleticism make them ideal for apartment life. Persians are available in a bewildering range of colours and patterns: white, black, cream, "red self" (a single reddish colour throughout), blue, blue-cream, smoke, bicolour, tabby, tortoiseshell, tortoiseshell-and-white, colourpoint (like a Siamese), pewter, chocolate and even lilac. Their gorgeous, long coats are a mixed blessing, however. "People choose them because they see them looking beautiful in TV commercials," says Sarah Heath, "and they don't realise how much work goes into keeping them that way." David Taylor agrees: "You can't afford to let a day go by without grooming one of these." Matting causes tangles, and these pampered pussies have a low tolerance of pain - so grooming quickly becomes a biting, scratching battleground. Many owners resort to de-matting under anaesthetic at the vet's. The ruff around the heads of Persians gives them a rounded, infantile look guaranteed to melt the hearts of would-be carers. Behavioural problems can develop, however, if they are not used to being handled and groomed as kittens. Pure whites with blue eyes are usually deaf (choose orange eyes); the coats of blacks go "rusty" if exposed to damp or too much sun.

**SIAMESE

Thoroughbred; shorthair; dark points on a pale coat. Very affectionate, demanding. Suitable for indoor and outdoor life. Very vocal. No grooming necessary. Robust.

Siamese cats are the most popular thoroughbreds in Britain after Persians. They look spectacular and are extremely extrovert - many will follow their owners on walks. "In fact," says Bruce Fogal, "if you secretly like dogs but your lifestyle doesn't permit one, the Siamese is a perfect substitute." The trouble with these cats is that their love of people can get out of hand (Sarah Heath hints that this may be a result of the sort of owners who choose such dependent animals in the first place). Over-dependency means they can't be left alone, which severely curtails an owner's lifestyle. Coupled with their "vocal" tendencies (a breeder's euphemism for the loud, child-like cries they emit), they can develop, as David Taylor says, "into something like a spoilt, howling, cross-eyed harridan." If you like the Siamese look but deplore its manner, a Birman - the so-called Sacred Cat of Burma, with its long hair, Siamese-type colouring and better temperament - may be the answer. Birmans are David Taylor's all-time favourite cats. Like the rare Ragdoll, they "drape themselves over your arm like a towel," and love families. Birmans were popular with all our experts.

****MAINE COON

Thoroughbred; longhair; available in all colours except chocolate, lilac and Siamese-style pointed. Affectionate, boisterous, vocal. Grooming twice weekly. Unsuitable for indoor life. Robust.

The Maine Coon came equal first in our poll. If physical robustness and rugged good looks are important qualities, this is the cat for you. Bred from American farm cats and longhairs, Maine Coons have a double coat of soft, woolly fur underneath and longer, coarser guard hairs. As a result, they don't require as much grooming as Persians. True to their ancestry, they are adventurous, lively and need lots of space - preferably in the country. "This is the man's cat," says Bruce Fogal, whose favourite breed is the Maine Coon. Males can weigh 25lb, and they like to roll around on the floor with you like a labrador. David Taylor says they make "great pals for children" (though very tiny people might slip a disc lifting them). Sarah Heath says she has never yet been presented with one of these cats for treatment, or behavioural problems. The Maine Coon's unique selling point is its idiosyncratic chirping sound, a sort of "brrrp" which it makes when happy.

SPHYNX

Thoroughbred; hairless. Quiet, affectionate. Suitable for indoor life only. Sickly.

Nobody had a good word to say about this travesty of a cat, bred cynically for exclusivity but maladjusted in every way. They don't moult, of course, but they shiver. Described as "affectionate", they don't like to be cuddled. Bruce Fogal points out that these hairless animals are not, as you might think, suitable for people with allergies. Humans can be allergic to the protein in a cat's saliva, and to its dander (dry skin), as well as to its hair. David Taylor summed up everyone's feelings: "The first Sphynx should have been put down at birth."

****SOMALI

Thoroughbred; longhair. Available in red and blue. Intelligent, affectionate. Twice weekly grooming necessary. Not suitable for indoor-only life. Vocal. Robust.

The Somali - judged joint favourite for its beauty, gracefulness and serenity - is a longhaired Abyssinian, believed by many cat addicts to be the direct descendant of the Sacred Cat of Egypt. Certainly its unusual agouti (lion-like) colouring makes it look wild, and its long, elegant body shape appeals to owners who would really like to appear in public with a tame lion. "They are very bright and interactive, but not in a demanding way," says Sarah Heath, adding that Somalis learn tricks easily. David Taylor says they can be trained to go for walks on a lead "but they need lots of freedom, and are restless indoors." Bruce Fogal describes them as having a "wired-up" personality - so watch out if you have hessian wallpaper; they will run round the walls. "They can be aloof," he warns, "but are mostly party cats, the frosted blondes of the cat world." Appropriately, Somalis have a large vocabulary of very loud sounds.

STOCKISTS

For a list of breeders for a particular cat, write to the Governing Council of the Cat Fancy, 4-6 Penel Orlieu, Bridgwater, Somerset TA6 3PG. Advice on all breeds (including non-pedigree) from the Cat Association of Britain, Mill House, Letcombe Regis, Oxfordshire OX12 9JD (01235 766543).

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