Loyal, obedient and faithful they may be, but why should it be that dogs have so effortlessly scooped the title of man's best friend almost unopposed? While their mortal enemy, the cat, is often seen as aloof and independent, for those who instead choose to enter in to the mysterious world of the feline, the rewards of ownership can often be a lot more enviable.
They have been perhaps the most enigmatic and secretive creatures mankind has ever tamed, and the fascination with them has stretched across human civilisation, from the worship of cats as gods in Ancient Egypt to the rather more sinister associations with witchcraft in the Middle Ages and beyond. Culturally too, cats have long been the subject of inspiration for artists, perhaps most prominently in the smash hit West End musical Cats, itself based on a classic TS Eliot novel, and the latest show to hit Belfast this week.
So, just what is it about our purring pals that captures our affections quite so? We spoke to four local cat-lovers to find out what lies behind their own special relationships with their feline friends.
I used to dislike cats. No, let me modify that: I used to hate cats. When I was growing up in Armagh in the late 1960s our most unwelcome visitor was a sofa-sized, dustbin-gray, permanently snarling sociopathic stray. All attempts to either chase him away or win his affections were met with a ferocious hiss and a sweep of his inch-long claws. He terrified our dog; indeed he terrified the rat-catcher who came to deal with some rats which had journeyed to our garden from a nearby river.
Anyway, that cat (nicknamed Moriarty, because of my passion for Sherlock Holmes) became my benchmark for all cats. Never trust them. Never try and befriend them. Never reach out a kindly, sardine-holding hand to them. Never make eye-contact with any owned by friends or family. Simple rule of life: don't trust cats.
And that rule served me well until October 7, 2005, my daughter Megan's seventh birthday, when my sister-in-law turned up with four closed-eyed, days-old kittens rescued, so she claimed, from certain death if left to fend for themselves on the golf course where they'd been found. They were from a litter of 10 and she seemed to think I owed her something because she hadn't brought the rest with her.
Megan – as her aunt had guessed – fell in love with them at once, as did her mum. I remained hard as nails. Yes, they were undeniably cute, like little ginger sponges which had been taken out of the oven too early, but what were we going to do with four cats? I was 'persuaded' (using the sort of psychological tactics favoured by Tony Soprano) to keep them until their eyes had opened "and then we'll find a home for them, really, we will".
It was all downhill from then. Those four squealing, pooping, blind ginger sponges did that thing that cats do when they put their minds to it. They won me over. Every time I sat down they buried themselves in my neck or my lap. They rolled in and wrapped themselves in our jumpers and duvets. They purred when we bottle-fed them and curled in to our palms. They clawed their way up our legs then, utterly exhausted, fell asleep in the crook of our arms.
And then a few weeks later, and one by one (in what was clearly a synchronised exercise) they opened their eyes and looked at us. It's hard to explain, but each one of those moments was a heart-thumpingly beautiful moment, and the moment I knew I had been converted.
We named them Wink (the first thing he did when he looked at me), Peanut (the only girl), Homer and Alex (the most sophisticated and handsome one). We couldn't keep all four, because we hadn't the space and also had two dogs, so we found Homer and Alex a home with a young family. Wink and Peanut (above) have been with us for eight years now and have brought us huge fun and enormous friendship. I can't imagine the house without them. They still wrap themselves in jumpers and duvets and use one of the tables as a scratching post – but so what? And occasionally my mind strays back to Moriarty and the thought that if we'd got him as a kitten his life would have been so much more relaxed.
Every cat needs an old jumper to snuggle in to and the whiff of the 'owner' who loves them.
We had Bob for 12-and-a-half years, since she was a little kitten. She died a couple of years ago after a short illness. I'm very lucky in that I haven't lost any close family members but Bob was a member of our family. We had had her since she was a kitten and raised her to an adult. I spent three years working from home and so there would be just the two of us. If I was having a bad day I would give Bob a hug and it would make me feel better.
I was reluctant at first to get another cat but eventually I changed my mind and we adopted Kuma when he was seven weeks old.
Having a kitten is a lot of work. For his first week I worked from home again so he could get used to me.
When I started going back out to work I had tire him out so he wouldn't destroy the house during the day. Each morning I would dangle ribbon or string and get him to chase it until he'd had enough and would go to sleep. Anyone who has a kitten will also look as if they've been self-harming. I was in a meeting once with some girls from London and I could see them exchanging looks – Kuma had managed to give me five perfect scratches on my wrist. I had to tell them in the end it was because of my cat!
I used to be able to work with my laptop on my knees and Kuma would snuggle in the crook of my elbow but now there's not enough room for him and my laptop because he's so big. We've had quite a few breakages since he's arrived – he's much more curious than Bob was and is forever climbing shelves. He's knocked over lamps, ornaments and picture frames – our living room is much more sparse than it used to be as we don't keep anything like that out anymore.
Kuma roams the neighbourhood now and he even has a girlfriend. She's a little black cat from the same street and they could be twins. They knock around together outside but he doesn't like it at all if she comes in to our house or I try to give her a treat!"
We adopted Tigger about 15 years ago now so he's getting a bit elderly. His mother was a feral cat who roamed our neighbourhood. At some point she was hit by a car or injured by something on her leg and it turned very bad.
We contacted the Cats Protection League, who gave us advice on how to catch her. When we got her to the vet, however, her injury was too severe and she went off to 'cat heaven'.
Tigger was the nearly fully-grown kitten who went around with her, so we took him in. We had a tom cat years before called Elvis who was very aloof. He would disappear off for days at a time until one day he just never came back.
Taking in Tigger wasn't a problem – he's been neutered and had his jabs. He's mostly an outdoor cat because he was more or less feral when he was with his mum. He finds all sorts of places to sleep, though – there's a little outhouse and an old hen house with lots of hay he can snuggle in to.
That doesn't mean he doesn't come inside – he's very sociable and snuggly. He can always tell if people don't like cats and is straight up to them, rubbing himself all over their legs.
I talk to him all the time and my boys tell me off, saying he can't talk back. That's not true at all, not only can he talk back but I have some of my best conversations with him and he doesn't give me cheek back.
Tigger tends to follow me around whenever I'm out in the garden and he particularly likes the greenhouse. I leave the door open for him and he has his own special place where he can bask in the sun.
He does leave little presents sometimes. I'll go and feed him and find a baby rat or a mouse left for me.
I've told him not to go after the birds, as I feed them, and he doesn't any more.
It might be because he's too old for them though."
We've been adopted by several cats over the years. One cat, who we called Kitten, got mentioned several times in newspaper columns that I wrote. He got so famous that when he died even Ian Paisley phoned me to tell me how sorry he was.
Since then there has been Moggin the Mog and Matilda the Moan. There were no positive attributes about her whatsoever.
The irony is Cate and I are both dog-lovers but we have a cat flap and underfloor heating so I'm convinced that somewhere there is a cat's guide to Belfast that has us firmly on the map.
Chunks came along about 18 months ago. It was about 5am and raining and we were woken by this dreadful wailing in the back garden. We went downstairs and even though we didn't want another cat we brought him in. We eventually found out that he belonged to a couple who were flaunting the No Pets rule in their flat and when the landlord found him he threw him out.
He is a big ginger tom who was sporting some astonishingly big family jewels – that's where his name came from. When we took him to get neutered the vet joked we'd have to start calling him Chunkless. He's a lovely, friendly cat and very big. I'm 6ft 8in and Cate always complains that our cats grow to match my height.
He loves giving hugs but he does have abandonment issues, particularly with Cate. Even when she goes to the bathroom he stands outside the door and wails and complains until she comes out."
Geoff's latest book, In Clancy's Boots, is available now, published by Blackstaff, £9.99