Column for BBC Radio 4 "Home Truths"
Let's get one thing clear - I'm not prejudiced. Some of my best friends really ARE cats. Why, I once lived happily in a house with 30 cats and 10 dogs for 6 years, but that's another story. A home isn't a home without a pussycat curled up purring in front of the hearth - and until recently ours was a fat, placid tabby of advancing years called Jarvis.
But that was BNC: before The New Cat... a small, neurotic and maddening animal I refuse to dignify with a gender or name. It begs to be stroked - but runs away when you try. It begs to be fed - but only when its bowl is overflowing. And it murders small inedible wildlife in our garden for fun.
So far, so feline. It was supposed to be company for Jarvis, but he moved out in disgust and now lives with strangers a few streets away.
It regularly breaks in next door and hides under the floorboards - only to come out when the house is deserted and the burglar alarm on. It once caught a paw inside its own flea collar, and for days fled on three legs whenever we attempted to rescue it. The collar had to go - the cat, alas, remains.
The final straw was the mosquitoes. At the height of last summer we slept with windows and curtains wide open - and ended up quite badly bitten.
We plugged in the holiday mozzie killers and burned chemical coils in our room, to no avail. Our three year old daughter was soon covered all over in angry red weals. The doctor took one glance and shook his head. No mosquito made those marks. These... were flea bites.
We sprayed the struggling cat and boiled the bedding, but by now our whole house was infested. Fitted carpets are an ideal habitat for cat fleas, it seems. Black, unsquashable dots appear on your ankles from nowhere then vault off again before you feel the bite. The only sure way to despatch the little blighters is to grab each one between your fingertips and drown it in a cup of water.
"Infested", "flea-ridden"... the very words make you feel so dirty. Friends fell into two camps - the horrified, visibly dropping us several estimation notches as we broke the news - and former fellow sufferers who overwhelmed us with kindly advice.
Yes, we went to the vet and bought a giant domestic aerosol, and yes - we duly saturated every room in turn. The bites returned worse than ever. I patrolled the house every morning in shorts: "Come on if you think you're hard enough" I'd jeer as a dozen newborn tics leapt onto my shins only to die in a single toxic blast from the spray.
Just to digress for a moment - have you ever noticed the difference between "domestic" and "professional" grade products ? The vacuum cleaners you can buy on the high street - versus the industrial ones sold to hotels and offices. You know, the ones that actually clean carpets. Or the "100% limescale remover" that supermarkets sell in odd-shaped bottles - versus the professional gunk plumbers flush down encrusted loos that has them glittering in seconds.
So with flea sprays. There's the aerosol vets sell to desperate householders at twenty five quid a pop. And the five gallon drums of unbranded substances councils buy for pest control purposes.
And guess which one clears your house of fleas.
After several days wrangling with Wandworth Pest Control, Ricky finally arrived. He was tall, slim and smiling in a blue polo shirt - his name embroidered fetchingly above one nipple. We had uselessly hoovered the house and stacked our furniture in the garden. Ricky now pulled on surgical gloves, primed his pump action spraygun, and set to work obliterating insect life in every cranny of our home.
My partner trapped and treated the cat. Her instructions were specific: brush its fur up the wrong way, spray with insecticide until wet, then dry the animal thoroughly with a towel. She slipped a fresh flea collar round its neck for good measure and got off lightly - we felt - with no more than one really serious gash.
All this has had an interesting effect on The Cat. It's given up persecuting small wildlife in the garden, and mews for food only when its bowl is empty. It hasn't been under our neighbour's floor in - oh - over a week, and is no doubt hoping we'll remove the flea collar in a few more months for good behaviour.
In your feline dreams...
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