You can tell a lot about a man by what he strokes

While dogs are becoming stupider over time, cats are ever more sophisticated
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DOUBTLESS THERE will be those eager to make cheap political capital out of this week's photographs of President Clinton snogging his dog Buddy in the Rose Garden at the White House. Some will accuse him of flagrantly peddling a good-ole-boy-with-his-dawg image; others will question the hygiene of Bill kissing an animal. Why should Buddy be put at risk like that? they'll ask

But it is among pet ownership psychologists that the President's problems have caused most interest. For some time, there has been speculation that a person's inner nature is invariably expressed through the pet he or she chooses to own. Someone who has difficulty with authentic feelings, to take an extreme example, might well prefer acquiring inanimate imitations to the real thing - "pet stones" or the collections of ornamental owls, pigs or frogs. In this context, Monica Lewinsky's testimony that she liked to give the president items which "reflected his interest in history, antiques, cigars and frogs" has caused particular excitement among the experts.

In reply to those who have argued that, apart from his china frogs, Bill has his dog Buddy, psychologists have pointed out that those who own dogs and no other animals are frequently expressing a need for a soft-eyed, waggy subservience in their everyday dealings. Often being drawn into inequitable, dysfunctional relationships, they will restlessly demand daily exercise, a quick, adolescent fumble in a hallway being the erotic equivalent of walkies.

It is, of course, no coincidence that, at the very time that the dog- owning lobby is on the back foot, the Japanese have announced the birth of Tama, the android cat. Noting that two years ago cats had overtaken dogs as the world's most popular pet, the electronics firm Omron has perfected a furry, life-sized imitation, complete with skin sensors, moving parts and highly-sensitive microphones, that purrs, miaows, turns when called, leaps in the air at a sudden noise, and spits when hit. The robocat is said to be the last word in what's known as "human/machine interface technology".

Tama might appeal to dog-owning emotional retards like Clinton, yet somehow I doubt it will satisfy cat-lovers. While dogs are becoming stupider over time, perhaps out of some evolutionary process to make them more endearing to their gullible owners, cats are ever more sophisticated. Taking advantage of their position at the top of the pet's league, they have adapted effortlessly to the Nineties sensibility and, in many households, they have subtly taken over.

There are those who are uneasy about this development. When I mentioned some months ago that Britain's 7.5 million cats are responsible for 1 million wildlife deaths between April and July in every year - the equivalent of banning all hunting with dogs until 2200 - an agitated reader suggested a feline curfew, enforceable by law.

Yet it's not the cats we need to worry about, but their owners. The zoologists at Southampton University who proudly announced their discovery that cats respond to human behaviour are on to something important. Like the daemons of Philip Pullman's superb fantasy novel Northern Lights, cats are learning to express in their behaviour the feelings which their owners dare not articulate in more conventional forms. The killing spree that is cutting a swathe through songbirds, frogs, rodents, and even bats, may be an expression of their owners' unresolved inner rage. Other cats may be taking a different approach, embracing a New Age gentleness which possibly might even lead to vegetarianism. When a cat comes into the house to regurgitate green matter on the new carpet, it is in effect "retrieving" grass, delivering it to its owners as a vegetarian present, in the way that its less sensitive fellow felines bring in mice or birds.

Are cats politically sensitive? Almost certainly, yes. It was, after all, not a disgruntled member of Old Labour who first brought into focus the true, hard-faced personalities behind the teeth and smiles of the new family at 10 Downing Street last year. It was Humphrey, a cat so tolerant that it could live with Mrs Thatcher and endured several years of Mr and Mrs Major without dying of boredom. Yet, as soon as the Blairs moved in, Humphrey found himself expressing the inner nature of his new owners, marking his territory in a showily aggressive manner.

Since he was banished to the suburbs, there has been a sort of tetchiness and intolerance evident in Blair's behaviour which is a sure sign of the non-pet-owner. It's when Tony seeks the companionship of a dumb, adoring Labrador that we should all start worrying.