Do we love pets? Not nearly enough

If the Brits really cared about their furry friends, they wouldn't put up with rabies laws, or Cruft's
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There are three myths about pets. The first is that pets are a replacement for children. This is not so. If one wants children, generally speaking, it is all too easy to have them. Such an assumption is also an insult to children, who are almost always more interesting to talk to than any pet can be and whose medical bills and other expenses, taken over a life period, are much less onerous. Pets are in fact a replacement for nothing, except, in the case of cats, an alternative to having a Mantegna or Matisse in the house. Cats are beautiful and there is no entrance fee to pay for looking at them.

The second myth is that any animal not born in this country is riddled with rabies, which has led the British to accept with docility the incarceration of their animals for six months should they bring them in from abroad, and to hundreds of holidays in Hove rather than Le Havre, not to mention the acceptance of a curtailment of freedom based on lies or ignorance, or both.

Much of this is to do with ancient suspicions of the French, on rampant parade at the moment as Europhobic MPs rant in the House of Commons or on television. Whatever the joys or otherwise of the ecu, the truth about the French and animals is as follows: the French like animals very much. It is true that they like eating them, too, but so do the British. The Germans are much the same. The best dog book published for years is Volker Kreigel's James-Thurber-like account of dog/man life in Germany, which is, incidentally, a mirror image of man/dog life in Britain.

In his splendid introduction to this book, Julian Barnes says: "The British are famous dog owners, dog lovers, dog shampooers, dog buriers and so on." This is the third myth. We are not. Any nation that accepts our rabies laws and fails to investigate the shenanigans at Cruft's Dog Show, which opened in Birmingham yesterday, is quite otherwise.

Whenever I've watched the show on the television, I've had great trouble working out if the winner was a dog at all. Generally the victorious hound is either a Claudia Schiffer lookalike, so thin that the bones show through a transparent coat, or a Cyril Smith puff-ball with no nose and a malevolent and murderous expression. All the dogs look like refugees from an experimental medical laboratory. Animal crates are nothing to what those poor show dogs have to put up with.

Even the inadequately chosen Cruft's judges have expressed considerable dismay at the weird-looking specimens paraded before them, dogs so peculiar that new names seem to be required to describe them. Yet the Kennel Club system is that these judges are chosen by the recommendation of the breed clubs, not by the far superior formal examination system used on the Continent.

The ludicrously competitive mumbo jumbo of the Kennel Club dog-showing world has become a hotbed of attempted murder. Fernwood Fallon, otherwise known as Rory the Rottweiler, was fed a cocktail of rat poison and sleeping powder, a Hungarian Puli died after being fed an Ecstasy-type drug and, at Cruft's in 1993, Abby, who appears in the Pedigree Chum commercials, was fed beef spiked with mogadon. Dogs' coats have also been sprayed with acid or dye.

Not only the dogs are attacked. Most recent accounts of Cruft's refer to "respectable women [or "little old ladies"] in tweed suits", as the chief human suspects of behaviour that includes tampering with cars so the wheels fall off; high-frequency dog alarms; anonymous phone calls, and fights in which the humans have to be pulled apart. In this Agatha Christie world, the show dogs lead a real dog's life: isolated, lonely, like birds in a cage. Cruft's has now taken the precaution of employing security guards.

It is this same Kennel Club, organiser of Cruft's and passive accepter of show-dog misery, which loudly condemns any change to our rabies regulations, which require us to intern our animals in a hellhole for six months' isolation. The British can take their dogs anywhere they like, as other countries can, but unlike the rest of Europe (and America come to that) they cannot bring them straight home again, unless drugged and packed into a handbag if small enough, or a suitcase in the boot if otherwise.

If a smuggled dog is found by the Customs it is immediately destroyed. It's a measure of the shallowness of our animal affections that so many dogs continue to be smuggled in.

For a holiday of two weeks, six months' quarantine is out of the question. But as things are, it's that or assassination at Dover. The upshot is that, unlike every other nation in Europe, no British resident can take animals on holiday.

These laws are based on the idea that rabies is rampant in Europe, particularly in France. This is not the case. First, no human being has died of rabies in France since 1924; second, if France was rampant with rabies would anyone go there? No, they would not. Nor would the French put up with it themselves: they are firm about what is due to them, and not at all keen on stiff upper lips.

There are two different types of rabies. Our rabies, European rabies, is only maintained within the fox population: although they can infect other animals, it is extremely rare for the virus to be passed on except by the fox. An act of a malevolent god is needed for this to change. French foxes have been bombarded by helicopter with the new anti-rabies oral vaccine, which will have eradicated the disease in Europe in the next year or so. British fears that foxes would nip through the tunnel and bite the people of Folkestone caused much mirth in France when Mr Mitterrand and the Queen opened the tunnel.

In France all domesticated animals are tattooed with numbers, they have passports with an official record of all vaccinations, and as all abandoned animals are rehoused or put down, there are virtually no strays. This pet passport control system is not acceptable to the British Kennel Club, which last year declaimed: "To enforce a system of pet passport control would be expensive, and there is strong evidence that false documentation is widely available in Europe." This absurdly blimpish comment ignores the fact that payment of rabies licence fees would be a mere bagatelle in comparison with general dog and cat cost of living, and would more than pay for the administration involved.

Any political party that sees the sense in allowing people who live in Britain to take their animals on holiday to EU countries will win the next election, and particularly votes in the South of England. It will cost nothing, it will cause no harm, and it will bring happiness to people. Perhaps the Labour Party could cease to address me as Comrade and instead grant me a small Clause V, which should read as follows: "We believe that vaccinated animals have a right to travel as their owners require and we do not believe that germs begin at Calais."

The author was a publisher, and is writing a book on fiction between 1950 and 2000.