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Cats are in, dogs are out, men are nowhere

By the year 2020, most British women will be single. The popularity of domestic cats is rising unstoppably. These findings from Social Trends, the government's annual statistical snapshot of contemporary habits, prompted a memorable and alarming headline in Thursday's Times: "Cats To Replace Husbands".

Will anyone notice? Like many husbands, cats are creatures of habit who expect dinner to be ready when they return from their daily exertions - and then, having gorged themselves, depart for a night on the tiles. After carousing until the small hours, they reappear in a dishevelled state, with no word of apology or explanation.

They are also maddeningly promiscuous in their affections. One of Britain's most devoted ailurophiles, publisher Carmen Callil, was so distressed when her cat moved in with the neighbours a couple of years ago that she transferred her allegiance to dogs.

According to Social Trends she is swimming against the tide. Cats overtook dogs as the nation's favourite pet in 1993, and by 1995 they had established a commanding ascendancy - 7 million felines, 6.6 million canines.

Social Trends attributes the historic reversal to "changes in lifestyle and household structures over the past decade or so". Since cats are easier to care for than dogs, they naturally appeal to busy professional types who live alone. As Britain is becoming a nation of "solo households", the feline supremacy seems unchallengeable.

All very true, no doubt; but not the whole story. Throughout the 1980s the numbers of both dogs and cats climbed steadily, with the pooches keeping their adorable wet noses just in front. In 1991, quite suddenly, the canine total began to plummet. If this declining popularity merely reflects a gradual change in "lifestyle and household structures", why did it happen so abruptly? And why then?

It is tempting to point out that the 1991 plunge occurred soon after the equally precipitous downfall of Margaret Thatcher. Most dictators - from Napoleon to Hitler - have been cat-haters who admired dogs for their unquestioning obedience. (Nicolae Ceausescu once demolished a hospital in Bucharest because a stray cat in a corridor had bitten his beloved dog, Colonel Corbu, on the nose). Eternally unbiddable, the cat has ever symbolised freedom. Could it be that, having thrown off the chains of Thatcherism, many Britons celebrated by trading in the family Borzoi for a Burmese kitten?

There is a more obvious explanation. In the early months of 1991, the media worked themselves into a panic over "killer dogs" - pit bulls, rottweilers, even alsatians - which were said to be roaming the country attacking tiny tots. The Government duly rushed a Dangerous Dogs Act through Parliament just before the summer recess.

At the same time, parents were increasingly worrying about toxocara canis - the disease which can blind children who happen to touch a piece of dog faeces while playing in the garden. Even the most innocuous little spaniel had become a menace. Is it any wonder a pet dog suddenly seemed as appealing as a mad cow?

Having solved that little mystery, we can now turn to a pet-problem that has so far escaped notice. Social Trends shows a steady reduction in the number of British budgerigars, from 2 million in the 1980s to a mere 1.4 million today. What has become of the missing budgies? Perhaps the ever-growing cat population, licking its collective lips, might know. I have seen the future - and it purrs.

The writer edits 'The Vintage Book of Cats', pounds 7.99 in paperback