People: A cat and dog fight for our affections

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I'm Sure you knew that the number of dogs in Britain is decreasing, while the number of cats is on the increase. And that the main reason is that dogs are considered family animals, whereas the cat is the pet of choice for singles. So as Britain gradually turns into a nation of sad, lonely people, Tibbles reigns supreme and Rover is looking at an uncertain future.

I learnt this fascinating fact over lunch on Wednesday when I attended the second annual Wag awards at the Intercontinental Hotel in Mayfair, at which the Dog and Cat Personality of the Year awards were to be announced. It was a surreal kind of event but it seemed to symbolise the almost pathological devotion most people in this country feel towards their pets.

I say "pets" but of course what I really mean is "companion animals". This was my second discovery of the day - everyone kept using the strange phrase "companion animal". But why? I can only assume some form of political correctness is at work and the word "pet" is now considered indicative of a fascist humanocentric worldview or something.

The bash was jointly staged by the country's leading pet insurers, Petplan (Companion Animalplan was no doubt considered a mouthful), and the Animal Health Trust, which is a charitable veterinary organisation. As with any awards ceremony, various celebrities had been wheeled in to do their bit, but in this case they seemed to have stepped out of a Seventies timewarp - Liza Goddard, Johnny Morris, "Diddy" David Hamilton. It was quite a relief to hear that Katie Boyle sadly couldn't be with us.

The serious stuff came first: a nice lady from Petplan detailed scientific and educational grants worth pounds 250,000 and a nice man from the Animal HeaIth Trust gave an award to a vet who has dedicated his life to the study of animal bladder disorders, - certainly worth a prize in my book.

Then the excitement mounted as we got down to the real business of the day. This year's Cat Personality Award was won by a British blue called Solomon, who had rescued and protected a brood of housemartins whose nest had collapsed. I have to say I found this a rather strange decision, since from my own experience, coupled with years of watching Sylvester and Tweety Pie, I'd always believed that cats by nature are supposed to chase birds and eat them. They'd given the prize to an unnatural cat! I couldn't put this point to Solomon himself, as sadly he couldn't be with us.

And so on to this year's Dog Personality. The winner was Shandy, a golden labrador who had saved his owner's life on two occasions - once when she nearly drowned and once when she was nearly struck by lightning. He looked like a nice old dog as he bounded up on stage to receive his award and you couldn't help but wish him well. After all, he's part of a dying breed. Somewhere in Dorset Solomon was probably purring contentedly. He knows the future belongs to him.


Why Angus told a big lie

THERE are certain questions that need answering and one of them is: Does Swampy smell? "Well, poor thing, yes he does, obviously because he lives in a tunnel. I'm sure we'd all smell if we lived in a tunnel," says Angus Deayton, who sat next to Swampy in the first of the new series of Have I Got News For You a week or so ago.

Angus has completed a four-part documentary series called The Lying Game, which begins in a couple of weeks. It's about the different ways lying and deception have infiltrated our lives and features interviews with a rogues' gallery of bluffers, cheats and impostors.

It was during his finals in French and German at New College, Oxford, in 1979 that Angus brought off his own feat of deception. "I remember only being able to answer one of the three questions in my German paper," he recalls. "So I spent three hours answering one question very, very fully. You write your answers on books, and at the bottom of the book I wrote 'continued on other book' and then put that in the wrong alphabetical pile in the hope that they would fall for it. And they did. Well they gave me a second anyway."

Angus says he's "dog mad" but has no interest in cats. When he was a boy he had a West Highland terrier called Shona. "Could she do any tricks? I think she was able to sit up and beg, but that was about it. She wasn't a performing dog, I didn't buy her from a circus or anything."


Canvassing for pet power

IT STRIKES me that pets must be a surefire vote-winner, so I thought I'd try and find out if my local candidates in the brand new constituency of Regent's Park and Kensington North are pet owners. My research was limited to the parties who had put a leaflet through my letterbox, which ruled out the Liberal Democrats, and I disqualified the Referendum Party candidate because life's too short, to be honest. This left the Conservatives and Labour.

I started with Paul McGuinness, the 32-year-old Tory hopeful who, to judge from his leaflet, favours a casual look and a slightly wayward hairstyle. He looked like a cat person to me. I rang the Helpline number (help with what?) and spoke to a very posh gentleman who told me that he had "no idea" whether Mr McGuinness has any pets. He was able to tell me that Mr McGuinness is not married but he had "no idea" whether he lives on his own (a possible cat-owner clue). I was none the wiser.

So I moved on to the Labour candidate, Karen Buck, who to judge from her leaflet is the sort of approachable person around whom pensioners and members of ethnic minorities congregate whenever she sits on a park bench. Her leaflet informed me that she lives with her partner, Barrie, and their young son, but it didn't mention pets, so I rang the Hotline number (nice sense of urgency there, Tony) and spoke to a similarly posh but somewhat more affable fellow.

He didn't actually know whether Ms Buck has any pets. "But she has a small child and often when you have a small child you're just a little bit cautious over household pets," he told me cautiously. "Is the question one that's fairly paramount for you in casting your vote?" I told him it was and I think he began to sense a possible vote slipping away. "Again, I don't know whether she does have any pets," he went on, "but I think there is quite a problem in cities with pets. Often it seems quite cruel. I know people have pets in the country, you know, in small villages, and it's wonderful, but to see some of them in blocks of flats, I do wonder what kind of life that is. But there we are, that's my own personal view, I'm just a helper here."

What a nice man. I think we'll put that down as a Labour victory.


The astronomer loses his purr

IT'S almost 40 years to the day since Patrick Moore first presented The Sky At Night, and tonight on the programme's anniversary special he'll be looking at the history of the telescope from the 17th century to the present day. The great man himself boasts a whopper with a 15-inch reflector and he doesn't take kindly to inquiries about whether in all these years of star gazing he might perhaps have spotted the odd UFO or two. "That's all frightful nonsense," he says.

However, he does believe there is intelligent life on other planets. "But not in our solar system. Our sun's one of a hundred thousand million stars in our galaxy alone. Now I'm quite sure our own perfectly ordinary, unimportant sun is not the only one to have an inhabited planet going round it. Certainly in our own solar system there is no intelligent life, except possibly on Earth."

Nice use of the word "possibly" there.

Patrick is currently in mourning for his beloved cat Bonnie, who died three weeks ago. "l'm absolutely heartbroken," he says. "I'd loved her for 19 years but she just wore out in the end. I feel very lost. The house feels so empty without her."

A plug for man's best friend

VICTOR Kiam, the man who liked Remington shavers so much that he bought the company, was in Britain last week tirelessly plugging his latest wonder product, Earplanes, which in case you haven't heard are small, polyurethane earplugs with a ceramic filter inside that alleviate ear pain for air travellers. (Slogan: "When you take the plane, you don't have to take the pain.")

Victor's greatest moments of salesmanship include the time when as a young man flogging Pepsodent toothpaste he did a presentation with the aid of a trained monkey. More recently he shocked a number of bigwigs at a meeting at Boots headquarters in Nottingham by dropping his trousers. "It really broke up the meeting," he says in fond reminiscence. "I don't think anyone else had done that before."

He travels too much nowadays to have a pet, but he talks movingly of the death of his Sheltie 15 years ago. "I think I cried more when he passed away than I did when any of my relatives died," he says. "Wherever we went, we took him with us, we never put him in a kennel, ever. We called him Omar, for obvious reasons."

Omar? You've got me there.

"Omar Kiam! You know! Come on!!!!"