TESTIMONY; What is it with men and small furry animals? Katie Sampson explains her pet theory
kids are out, animals are in. This is my new pet theory on the changing lifestyles of us late twentysomethings. Right now, most of my girlfriends are simply not interested in being shackled to kids or marriage. Men may come and men may go, but animals seem to be the preferred long- term companions. "Love me, love my pet," has never been more apt.

The fly in the ointment is the man who insists on misunderstanding this ground-breaking shift away from the family unit. He sees the independent single female-with-pet situation as a single-parent-family-in-need-of- a-father figure. Take my ex, who argued against our splitting up on the grounds it would make my cat the victim of a broken home. "Hey, it's your Dad," he told her last time he visited, and was wounded when she didn't turn a hair.

My friend John pretends that he's in control of the animal factor in his relationship. "I try to encourage my girlfriend to put her maternal instincts into her pets, since they are a cheaper version of children," he says; in fact he has little choice in the matter.

"When the four of us are sharing her single bed, it does get a little squashed," he adds. Before he can get near his girlfriend he has to negotiate her giant poodle and her pugnacious parrot. Adding insult to the injury done to his toes by the wretched parrot, his girlfriend says she prefers stroking fur and feathers to his manly frame.

I admit that I'm almost as guilty. Lovingly watching Borris, my kitten, chewing on my niece's discarded teething biscuit, I know that anyone who wants to fit into my life has to accommodate a cat and two kittens, but I draw the line at frustrated dads playing adopt-a-surrogate family. My flat-mate Ben calls me Mad Cat Woman. He says this is a compliment, but as I try to visualise myself dressed in a black shiny PVC catsuit, miaowing provocatively, the unsavoury image of Mrs Slocombe crossed with a musty bag lady surrounded by moggies jumps in first. But on reflection, I think I'm beginning to understand what he means.

A mad cat (or any other cuddly pet) family can actually up your partner- pulling power considerably. On first acquaintance with my feline companions, a number of men have turned into adoring idiots and started to make settling- down noises. Take Dan, the East End hard nut who, after a prolonged flirtation, comes for a decider dinner. Recognising a sucker when they see one, the kittens perform their little tails off and within minutes our romantic meal a deux is sabotaged as Borris jumps on the table and makes off with the salmon. Chasing him, I am stopped in my tracks by "Aw, let 'im 'ave it, 'e's hungry, poor ickle boy".

Turning back, I see Borris's twin prancing coquettishly around the table, Dan trailing after her, hands cupped lest she fall off the edge. The sight is ridiculous and I realise that a relationship with Dan would be demanding in the extreme.

Going away for 10 days to clear my head, I leave the little darlings in the dubious care of Andrew the mechanic, another former boyfriend, who has little time for soft behaviour. Perfect, I think, the kittens need a little toughening up.

"Oh no, you're back," he cries on my return, and of course I panic, shouting, "What have you done to my kittens?"

"My kittens are fine," he says, pointing down to the three happy, fattened felines winding themselves around his legs. Since they've adopted him, he thinks he ought to move in for their benefit. Meanwhile Maria, my other flatmate, returns home devastated. Her relationship with her sportsman is over, she says; she can no longer bear to play second fiddle to his beloved Catya. For this reason my friend Bob's Mum, keen that he should marry, tells him that on no account is he to get a pet. Instead she points out nice-looking dogs to him whenever there is an attractive, available- looking woman on the other end of the lead.

Frustrated family instinct can be found everywhere - my pet theory was quickly extended to the older generation when I saw the press conference of Humphrey the cat, prodigal son of Downing Street. Cabinet ministers and commentators gave the creature undivided attention.

One night while I'm lying in bed, something slimy and cold lands on my neck. Borris has brought me a slug and is about to drop a worm from his mouth on to my pillow. Throwing the creepy-crawlies out of the window, I breathe a sigh of relief that Dan isn't here. I'm not at all sure that he wouldn't want to welcome Borris's new friends into the family with open arms.