Cat crazy! I've got that lovin' feline

After the Tories went to war over little Maya, novelist Philippa Stockley celebrates the nation's love affair with the most imperious of pets

Cats are never long out of the news: currently we have Maya, whose right to a family life caused the fur to fly at the Tory party conference, and Beauty, the kitten stolen from her love rival by MP's wife Christine Hemming. And let's not forget Guinness world-record-holder Smokey, whose purr is as loud as a lawnmower.

Cute! But not to everyone. There are people who, if their partner was out might, purely in the interests of science, let Smokey play with the strimmer, then see what noise it made. In a world with an estimated 500 million cats, almost 11 million in the UK, there is no doubting our fondness for what Linnaeus named Felis Catus, the domestic cat. Yet in south China the cat-meat and fur trade puts paid to thousands of them. Here, the Cats Protection League, which handles around 6,000 unwanted cats at any one time – some found in garbage chutes or taped into cardboard boxes and left to die – says that adoptions were down this summer, due to the downturn.

As writer Jeff Valdez said: "Cats are smarter than dogs. You can't get eight cats to pull a sled through snow." Not only that, but cat households apparently boast a higher percentage of degrees. In the binary world of the human psyche, in which transference is all (big car, large –), there are cat-lovers and dog-lovers. We get round the probable myth that more cat-owners are women by saying that women with more than two cats are mad.

But not all cats are smart. You get the cat you deserve. I knew a girl who got a sweet rescue cat, let's call it Mittens. In the middle of the night, she was woken by a terrifying metallic banging noise, went down to the kitchen, and found Mittens trying to remove a kitchen stool that had got fixed to its magnetic collar, by bashing its head against the fridge.

My own life has been led as a sort of cat-magnet, besieged by delinquent, dropsical or half-dead cats. First there was Holland Park Angel Darling, a prolapsed tabby who barricaded my French windows with her enormous bulk and then, when she had scored, slept each night wrapped round my head like a 1960s fur bonnet with ear-flaps. Next came Whitechapel Boris, a black-and-white outbreak of cat-shaped mange who spent a month rutting my knees. Where do these derelict bits of parka-trimming come from? They steal your heart, vomit on your keyboard and cost more than a Lamborghini.

Cats can hear ultrasound, which helps with hunting mice. But they can also hear ultra-soft-touch. Ultra-cushy-berth. Sniff it out. Colonise. Purr and conquer. Yet, if I had to choose between saving my cat or my house, I would save the cat. Stupid? Doubtless. Unusual? No.

Because I love the cat and, as far as I can tell, when he is snuggled up next to me at night, his paw clasped in my hand (rather than biting my nose to ask for food or hacking up grass on the just-changed duvet), the cat loves me. History says I am not alone in loving the grace, charm, beauty, companionship and limitless comic potential of this responsive animal, who chases water from a hose round and round the lawn, or who, when he was a tiny, worried kitten in a rescue centre, selected me by tottering round my ankles and then unexpectedly pissing on them, as if I were a tree. He marked me. I took him home.

Science finds that stroking pets reduces blood pressure and stress. Technically, while having a cat does not make one happier, ownership has been shown to reduce unhappiness. But into this beatific vision, a furball. In the United States, cats are officially recognised as trip hazards. Any cat owner who has tried getting downstairs in the morning with a hangover knows the way Fluffy picks this moment for a determined bout of twined intimacy with one's legs.

We know Egyptians liked, worshipped, and kept cats because of cat-formed representations of the goddess Bastet, and because of carefully mummified cats, sometimes left with saucers of milk or mice. Elsewhere, it is said Muhammad cut a hole out of his coat rather than disturb a cat that was snoozing on it; while the proximity of a human and domestic-cat skeleton in a Neolithic grave in Cyprus, dated around 7,500BC, makes the connection much earlier.

Artists and writers have not only kept cats for companionship (Ernest Hemingway had a pack of around 30), but also used them as subjects. Samuel Johnson bought his cat, Hodge, oysters, to save the servants extra work. Colette, who herself looked feline, wrote with her Chartreuse cat on her desk, as well as putting it into a love triangle in one of her most disturbing novellas, The Cat. When it died, she could not bear to replace it. T S Eliot wrote dedicated poetry; Edward Bawden, who lived alone with a cat once his wife died, made illustrations.

In the 19th century, Théodore Géricault and Francisco Goya did beautiful, unsentimental paintings of cats, whose familiarity betokens both liking and intimacy; particularly Gericault's White Cat, a masterpiece of relaxed muscular repose; or Goya's sketchy, scratchy fighting cats, Riña de Gatos. Spectre mastermind Blofeld strokes his white cat obsessively in three James Bond stories. Then there are cartoon cats. Felix, grandfather of them all, conceived around 1900 by Otto Messmer, and so popular that Charles Lindbergh used him as a mascot on his transatlantic flight, rather than exposing his beloved pet Patsy (whom he occasionally took flying) to the risk; naughty 1961 American gang-cat Top Cat "He's the most tip-top, Top Cat!"; or cuddly Bagpuss, created by Oliver Postgate in 1974. Postgate only made 13 episodes, yet Bagpuss is still remembered.

What else do we love? Cats are vaguely baby-size. When you cuddle them, instead of dribbling rancid milk, they purr. Their fur is soft. They snuggle at the drop of a hat. A well-cared-for cat will return the love of its owner, which is more than any human relationship guarantees, and which in a human might prove irksome. It's one thing to watch telly with a cat on your lap, quite another a large person.

In fact, it is most likely this neoteny (the enduring kittenhood response) of an adult cat that endears it to us. Or – as Mrs Hemming, unhappy in love and trying to justify her apparent theft of a kitten – put it more simply: "I remember the warmth."

Philippa Stockley's most recent novel is 'A Factory of Cunning', a sequel to 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses'

Cats at the centre of power

The first known Downing Street cat was Peter, installed in 1929, followed by Peter II and Peter III, who appeared on the Tonight programme in 1958. His replacement was a female Manx cat named Peta. Wilberforce took office with Edward Heath in 1970, leaving in 1988 after serving four prime ministers. The big name however was Humphrey, a stray named after the unhelpful mandarin in Yes, Minister. He was the official mouser for the Cabinet Office from 1988 to 1997 and gained notoriety after an accusation that he killed four robins nesting in the garden in 1994, but John Major declared him innocent. After a 10-year hiatus, Sybil arrived in 2007 but left in 2008. The current encumbent is Larry, a rescue cat introduced in February after a rat was spotted during a TV news report.

Chris Stevenson