If I've read 'A dog is for life, not just for Christmas' once this week, I've read it a hundred times. Readers were hopping mad about my friends Jim and Trudi who, after their children left home, grew tired of their two seven-year- old dogs. Bored with walking them, fed up with feeding them and irritated by their shedded hairs, they had given them away to separate homes.

It all boiled down to whether animals are objects that we own or members of the family to whom, whether we love them or not, we have a duty. As Ann M Mills of Colchester put it: 'Jim and Trudi are not true animal lovers, just selfish animal possessors.'

The situation got everyone incredibly steamed up: 'Unprintable]' (Molly Simmons, Radcliffe on Trent); 'What charming friends you have, willing to repay seven years of devotion this way] Self-centred and thoughtless] . . . Do they kick poor people as well?' (Tony Cobb, Welwyn Garden City); 'People like your friends have only my contempt. How can we learn to respect others when we have such a cavalier attitude to creatures who only give us love and affection?' (Sheila Streets, Aberdeenshire); 'If Jim and Trudi weren't animal lovers themselves, they should never have raised dogs in the first place' (Rae Berkowitz, South Africa).

Had illness or disablement been the reason, Jim and Trudi's decision might have been forgivable, as Paulette Riggall, of north London, pointed out. But even then: 'Was it unavoidable to inflict a double bereavement on both animals?'

Why couldn't a home have been found for the dogs to live in together? 'Dogs are pack animals and it's very unfair to break up their pack,' said Peter James, of Chippenham. 'Like us, most animals are social. It drives me wild to see people keeping single goldfish - shoal animals - in tanks.'

'I have two dogs the same age and separation for even a few hours makes the subservient dog very depressed,' wrote Jackson Kingham (no address). And Judy Forsyth, of Old Portsmouth, pointed out that while it is cruel enough to separate human companions, at least they can be comforted with explanations, but 'animal bonding is basic. When broken, animals misbehave or decline.'

How does treating animals as things affect us as humans? Despite the fact that Hitler was a dog-lover and anti-vivisectionist, and despite the fact that my friends are, to their human friends, warm and compassionate people, I could not help sympathising with Valerie Stevens, of Hereford, when she asked: 'Can you explain why I instinctively detest Jim and Trudi, feeling my heart swell with disproportionate rage? Perhaps it's because the abandonment of a pet which loves and trusts us is an ugly and distasteful act . . .'

Certainly this is the feeling that guided me when I was tempted to give a cat away. He was smelly, terrified, servile, sneaky - altogether a repulsive specimen. None of us could stand him. Everything was arranged, the cat basket by the door and the new owner primed. But the night before the handover I was unable to sleep for guilty anxiety. After all, if I found it hard to love him, how could anyone else? I cancelled the transaction and the wretch is with us still. Only a mother (ie me) could love him. But I care for him, albeit often grinding my teeth, because I have a duty towards him. It's a case of 'I've started, so I've got to finish.'

Quite apart from the cruelty inflicted on the dogs, and the way Jim and Trudi have degraded themselves by treating animals as possessions, what about the 'do- as-you-would-be-done-by' angle?

That is what Pat Burden, of Reading, asked - cunningly appealing to Jim and Trudi's self-interest. 'How do their children feel about their parents' behaviour? They have not set a good example of caring for others and taking responsibility for dependants. If the children are indifferent perhaps they will adopt the same attitude to their parents when they become a nuisance through old age or illness.'

I know it is a bit twee to quote from a 'four-legged reader' but I cannot resist a final word from Fudge Russell, who 'wrote' from south London: 'My son Stanley and I have resided with the Russell family for nearly four years and they find themselves in a similar dilemma. Their son, Kevin, 16, lives at home, but his parents are now fed up with him. Loud techno music, the smell of cheap aftershave, the unwashed duvet, expensive to feed and a chore to talk to. Mr Russell wants to have him put down but Mrs Russell wants to find a good home for him. Stanley and I think they were foolish to have him in the first place, but then we are only dogs.'

Jim and Trudi should simply have toughed it out. Another seven years would probably have seen them out. My antenatal teacher used to say gleefully: 'When you have the baby, you can't take it back to the shops.' The same applies to every pet. And perhaps Jim and Trudi should have remembered: when they got old and smelly, their dogs would never have abandoned them.

Dear Virginia,

I'M INVOLVED with a woman I love dearly. She's a career woman of 24 - and she's Asian. My parents adore her, we've been together for two years and want to spend the rest of our lives together. But her parents don't know - and they'd be horrified if they found out. They are planning a traditional arranged marriage for her, despite lots of hints from my partner that they shouldn't bother.

The problem is that my partner feels her parents would be distraught, if not destroyed, if they knew the truth about her, and obviously she wants to spare them pain because she loves them. What should she do? She says that to tell

her family the truth would result in her being totally ostracised, and she thinks her mother might have a nervous breakdown.

Can your readers help? We feel so alone. Has anyone else coped with this problem?

Yours, Adrian

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