Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The making of a little gourmet

Otto is a bon vivant in the making.

He has discovered cheese and chicken – and is besotted with both.

It seems a long time since I had the fun of dealing with a cat following me into the kitchen at every possible opportunity to see what was going on. Mack used to do it, and he'd sit near the sink and watch me closely. Cats being cats, he was probably thinking to himself: 'Stop stirring it around in that pan – you need to leave it be to get the lardons cooking properly'.

Otto, however, is already going a stage further, having volunteered himself as my tester in chief. This works along the lines of: 'you've just opened the fridge and now have something on the work surface ... what is it?' Boing! Onto my shoulder and then, if it looks or smells really interesting, onto the work surface.

Followed by my popping him down on the floor. Followed by 'Boing!' etc.

I suspect that this is all related to his skinniness when he arrived nine weeks ago – you couldn't simply feel his ribs, but between them: he was clearly smaller than his brother, although no less feisty, and his fur was a bit like sheepskin.

Two months down the line, he's slightly bigger than Loki, wonderfully sleek and with an immaculate coat. And he likes his food.

The cats all prioritise food differently. For Boudicca, when we arrive home in the evening, 'hello' fuss on the bed has to be followed by a few mouthfuls of fresh food and then the garden.

For Loki, this is time to spend under the kitchen table re-discovering that he's got a tail.

For Otto, it's serious eating time, to which he dedicates himself without interruption – except to check whether Boudicca's bowl has more interesting meat or to take a few sips of cat milk or to munch a few cat biscuits.

A few days ago, when I was getting myself a bit of cheese – Double Gloucester – he clearly wanted to try it. I have now made a rod for my own back. He went potty for it. He's tried Boursin – a crumbly, creamy French cheese with, in this case, peppercorns in it – Stilton (probably not his favourite), an orange Cheshire and, yesterday, a creamy goat's cheese, which was, apparently, even more bonkersly delicious than anything he'd previously sampled.

Mind, on the grounds that if he's having something she better have some of it too, the Queen B has also decided that she wants cheese. Interestingly, she has always struggled to easily take food from anyone's fingers. Otto seems to have mastered this without even giving it a thought.

Last week, after I'd pared all the meat off the carcass of the roasted chicken we'd had for Sunday dinner, I gave them some tidbits on a saucer. Within moments, Otto was growling at his brother. Clearly that chicken was for him and nobody else. Loki had to have some chicken separately.

All this comes when they were getting bored of kitten food anyway – well, apart from kitten biscuits, and Boudi's helping them much through those. Her ladyship's food seems to be infinitely more interesting to them.

Now all the containers of kitten food say that you should feed them kitten food for a year. How do you do that – force feed them? It's not easily practical to cut off the kittens from Boudi and her food or visa versa – not least because cats naturally graze, so I'm not going to leave them stuck in different rooms with separate bowls and litter trays while we're at work every day.

In retrospect, both our first cats – Mack and Mabel – grew up on a diet of ordinary tinned cat food. I doubt if, at that stage, I even knew that kitten food existed.

And they're all going to get a slight addition to their diet when I can next get to the butcher on Broadway market – raw chicken wings. A colleague with even more experience of moggies than us was showing me some advice on a veterinary website last week.

As it so accurately puts it in the section on feline oral health: "Minimise dental disease by feeding a food for which the teeth of your 'hunting creature' have been designed.

"Cats are little hunting creatures. No hunting creature hunts jelly or gravy." They may like those things – but they don't hunt them.

And it goes on: "Give your cat mouse-sized chunks of raw meat twice a week as a meal. Raw chicken wings are ideal.
Don't feed cooked bones."

So, that's a new treat in store.

The "little hunting creatures" are getting into everything. And the bedroom window sill is no exception. Right behind the bed, it's very wide and covered with a wooden blind. Every cat we've had has enjoyed climbing into it to look out at the garden or, more accurately, a bay tree and a little bit of the garden. The kittens are no exception and both of them can now manage to get themselves up and behind the blind.

On Sunday, when we were having a pleasant lie-in, Otto got himself up there. And then had to get down. During which process he slipped. Straight onto my face. I got lovely cuts on the bridge of my nose and cheek from kitten claws that are like razor-sharp needles. Fortunately, they're clean and will heal without any problem, I think. If they don't, I'll go all romantic and claim they're duelling scars. Very Prussian.

Not that I could be remotely cross – for some reason or other, I have the patience of Job when it comes to cats.

Of course the development of my little gourmet raises one or two ethical questions. When Mack was first ill at around 16 years, the vet first announced that he needed dental work (which we had done) and that we should give him a diet of dry food only – to be bought from the same vet, of course.

We tried. He didn't like it one iota. Was it better to feed him what he wanted or what the vet said was best for him, but which he would just leave? Better to let him get to starving point before giving in and eating what he didn't like? I did the former.

As it happened, he had kidney disease. I've sometimes wondered if his favourite treat of all – tinned tuna, but only in brine – had helped cause that problem because of its salt content. I've never served it to any cat since he had a saucer of it on his last night alive.

We tried to convert Boudi to dry food only, but while she likes biscuits, she quite clearly doesn't believe that they constitute a properly varied diet. Indeed, after Mack died and she became a lone cat, we found that a few weeks later, she started to develop ways of making it crystal clear that meat was required. Mack – and before she died eight months before him, Trickie – had always been the ones to do the demanding and organising of their human slaves, but suddenly she had to learn to do it for herself.

Interestingly, the woman from whom we got Otto and Loki is a veterinary assistant – and she told us that they were used to having two meat meals a day, plus biscuit. So there's no veterinary consensus.

But a few bits of cheese? Is it bad for Otto? What if he really likes it, though? Is it cruel not to limit them only to strictly cat food? Shouldn't we all eat just exactly what is strictly nutritionally perfect for us? Or would that not be just a tad boring – a tad anti-life?

As it happens, a bit of checking suggests that the odd bit of cheese will do no harm.

And I get pleasure from it too – it's fascinating and funny to see what cats decide they like. Mabel liked to sit on The Other Half's knee and be fed tiny bits of Scotch pancake. One evening she even ate fried onion out of a sandwich he'd made himself.

Mind, how many domestic cats eat anything like a natural diet in the first place? I've never seen Whiskas offering a range of mouse patés or Felix retailing sparrow chunks in spider gravy. I could be wrong, but I'm not aware of cattle as ever having been the natural prey of small felines.

Perhaps I shall discuss this with Otto when he gets older. I'm sure he'll say that a little bit of what you like does you good.

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