Not that long ago, I went on a date with a man in New York. He worked on Wall Street. He was handsome, in a Mr Big from Sex And The City way. He had a good sense of humour and an American Express Black card (they only hand them out to the super-rich). I thought he could possibly be perfect.
That is, until we got onto the subject of pets. I had started to treat him to a slideshow of photos of my animals on my Blackberry. Tiny tabby face followed tiny black and white face.
“How many cats do you have, exactly?” he asked, fear in his voice.
You could see him physically recoiling, battening down the hatches, catching the eye of the waitress so that he could ask for the bill.
“And where do they sleep?” he asked, rummaging for his wallet.
“With me, of course. On my bed.
“Well, Squeaky goes on my pillow. Sweetie goes between the two sets of pillows. Susie, the former feral cat, is on my chest. She hates it if I move to switch off the lamp, or sneeze...”
I could have continued for an hour or so on this subject, but he was already on his feet, shrugging on his cashmere jumper.
“I worry about claws near my genitals,” he said, shivering on the pavement, almost throwing himself in front of passing yellow cabs.
I’m glad he bolted. For believe it or not, his aversion to me sleeping with my cats was as big a turn-off for me as it was for him.
I have slept with my cats for more than two decades - and would much rather go to bed with them than a man. For a start, cats are more hygienic than men, and so much easier to house train.
Which is why I was left fuming by a report that sleeping with animals can be bad for your health, making you susceptible to all kinds of horrible diseases.
Rubbish. It has been proven that children with pets suffer from fewer allergies and diseases, not more. Hospital patients have been shown to have reduced blood pressure when they have been allowed to stroke a cat or a dog, while pet owners are happier and fitter than those who don’t have animals.
Worse still, the study, by Bruno Chomel, a professor at the University of California school of veterinary medicine, and Ben Sun, chief veterinarian for California’s health department, also found that “pets have become substitutes for childbearing and child care, sometimes leading to excessive pet care”.
These are sentiments that I - as a single childless woman - find as patronising as they are offensive. Just because you choose to share your bed with your pets doesn’t mean you are aching with unfulfilled maternal longing. If that was true, then how come a whopping 62 percent of cat owners say their pets sleep either on or in their beds?
Personally, I can’t imagine going to bed without my cats, or the paraphernalia that comes with them.
Because Squeaky is now 22, she has a little series of steps constructed by the bed so that she can clamber on to it. There is a bowl of water and a bowl of biscuits on one corner, in case she, or any of the others, becomes hungry or thirsty.
When it’s cold, the cats have the electric blanket switched on all day. I can never make the bed if they are on it, or even vacuum clean the bedroom for fear of alarming Susie.
The duvet cover is brown cashmere - the only fabric that doesn’t show their hairs.
The cue for them to get on to my bed is when they hear the sound of my electric toothbrush. Then, it’s a sea of stripes and black and tan as they all scramble for pole position. I have become very adept at sliding under their tiny commas.
Susie will cling to the duvet, very much like an extreme surfer. Grebo, the ancient one with no tail and only one eye, will always make me jump when, in the middle of the night, he scales the side of the bed like an extreme mountaineer, his lopsided face appearing suddenly at my side.
I don’t often have any of my four collies on the bed; but this is because the cats won’t allow it, not me. If a collie so much as places a paw on the bed, he or she will be met with a hard, green feline stare. Only my old male dog, Michael, is tolerated occasionally (the puppies are far too boisterous), but only if he keeps perfectly still.
Do other people think me strange? Of course they do.
The other day, I took one of my collie puppies, Mini, out to lunch at a friend’s. She did her usual thing of slinging herself, smelling strongly of pond, across my lap as I ate, occasionally reaching up to steal things from my fork. My friend spent the lunch wearing a look of utter bemusement. I had forgotten that not everyone is as tactile with their animals as me.
But I think that unless you surrender yourself to an animal, there is no point having them.
I have a closeness with my flock, or gang, or whatever you might call them, that, yes, borders on the insane, but is also rewarding, and almost telepathic. My furry bedfellows radiate love, and I am never lonely.
Occasionally, friends with small children stay with me, and you can see the terror flashing across faces when they find out they will be assigned a cat or two to sleep with. My friend Kerry was clearly concerned my black cat Squeaky would suffocate her newborn. Squeaky would never do such a thing: she’s far too clever for that.
As for people who say a woman should sleep with a man, not cats, let me tell you that in my experience cats are so much more rewarding to share a bed with than men.
Cats keep you warm rather than placing cold, hard feet in the small of your back; pets don’t complain when you want to watch TV.
You can lean your heavy hardback against their side, and if there are any suspicious bangs in the night, they will be on high alert, eyes like dinner plates, desperate to protect you rather than continuing to snore, oblivious, as most men would.
My collies act as my ears (I’m almost deaf), nudging me under the duvet if the phone rings or there’s a knock at the door.
The only downside to having cats on the bed is the regularity with which a small rodent will be placed in your hair, or down the back of your pyjamas.
Above all, though, animals are a good judge of character.
My new boyfriend has quickly learned that unless he sleeps like a starfish, a puss nestled in each angle, he will get shouted at. He knows not to make any sudden movements, or to cough or sneeze.
He surrendered to Grebo - he of the one eye - with a great deal of good cheer, even though this cat’s favourite thing is to lie flat on your chest, both arms in a Superman position around your neck.
The worst thing you can do with Grebo is try to prise him off, because he is a very strong little man, and will dig his claws into your flesh.
I find the person who relegates his dog or cat to a basket, or who shuts the bedroom door, immune to the whimpers, to be sterile and heartless and sexless.
“What greater gift than the love of a cat?” asked Charles Dickens. What greater gift indeed. - Daily Mail