THE BRITISH really are a nation of pet lovers and will go to no expense to prove it, according to an in-depth article by Mary Gold in The Times newspaper last week. Not only is money a big issue with the care pet owners lavish on their pets many people use their pets as emotional props, including the rich and famous.
According to the article: "When George Best went back on the spritzers, who did he confess to on the morning after? His two Irish setters, of course. And when Sir Alex Fergusons scary enforcer, Roy Keane, needs someone to cuddle, who is it? His faithful labrador Trigg.
Sir Elton John believes that his dog Thomas, rescued from Battersea Dogs Home, helped him to overcome his drug and alcohol problems. Its a national trait that goes right to the top.
The Queens preference for canine, rather than human, company is renowned. According to Palace insiders, a royal tiff is likely to be followed by Her Majesty clipping the leads to the royal corgis and striding out for a brisk walk."
The figures speak for themselves. The British have an astonishing 50.6 million pets 2.3 for every household. That compares with 2 per house in France, 1.9 in the US, 1.4 in Italy and 1.1 in Russia. We also have a wider range of pets 23 per cent of us keep a dog and slightly more have a cat and exotic pets also rate increasingly highly in our affections.
The article continues: "Some statistics reveal our obsession, spilling over into the downright eccentric. Did you know that we spend more on pets than we do on soap (cleanliness being nowhere near next to dogginess)? Or that Swindon, inexplicably, is the pet-owning capital of Britain? Or that the people of Southampton prefer cats and goldfish to any other pet?"
There are practical, as well as emotional benefits from owning pets. According to a recent issue of Veterinary Journal, simply touching animals helps to promote well-being. There is some evidence that people who have regular contact with animals live longer than those who do not the late Queen Mother, who always kept several dogs, being a prime example.
Scientists reckon the average cholesterol level of people who own pets is 2 per cent lower than that of those who do not. Pets have also been found to lower both blood pressure and levels of harmful blood fats.
Deana Selby, of the National Canine Defence League (NCDL), was quoted at length, saying: "Being seen as caring for animals is a terribly British thing. It may have something to do with an island mentality, and perhaps we think were better than other people, but you have to remember that Britain and the US, which are very active in animal welfare, are wealthy nations.
"In poor countries, animals come a long way down the list of priorities. We should not be too eager to sit in judgment on other nations."
The article continues: Selby attends the International Companion Animal Welfare Conference, held every 18 months in Eastern Europe. She says: "You see there how different the British are to the rest of the world. Every country has people keen on animal welfare but they tend to be lone individuals who are regarded as being a bit loony. In Britain were organised because animal welfare has been a long-established tradition."
There is, though, a darker side to the story. Every year an estimated 117,500 dogs are abandoned; in the same period, Cats Protection finds itself with 65,000 unwanted animals.
We keep lone rabbits in hutches, which makes them depressed, and put birds in cages, the most unnatural place imaginable for a wild creature. In a single year (2001) the RSPCA rescued 184,706 animals from danger or abuse.
Many animals end up at rescue centres because of lifestyle changes by their owners moving house, divorce or the arrival of a new baby.
Selby believes that the single biggest problem is caused by peoples failure to make sensible decisions about which pet is right for them. "They see a collie on One Man and his Dog on TV and think theyre clever but they dont realise that a Collie needs to work and to be stimulated. If you walk on Hampstead Heath youll see which dogs are in vogue at the moment its weimaraners but responsible owners need to think of the needs of the dog as a priority."
Phil Buckley, of the Kennel Club, agrees. "Some breeds are affected by Hollywood Dalmatian Rescue was inundated with unwanted dogs after 101 Dalmatians. And the Kennel Club had lots of calls about breeds after Turner and Hooch (Dogue de Bordeaux) and Gladiator (Neapolitan mastiff). It is never a good idea to buy a dog as a fashion accessory just because a film star has one."
l Pets often have their unconditional love repaid by their owners with generous bequests, including:
Tinker, an eight-year-old black cat from north London, came into a £450,000 fortune in May after being left a three-bedroom house in Harrow and a £100,000 trust fund by his owner.
Actress Beryl Reid left her £420,000 estate to a fellow actor on condition that he look after her six cats.
Each of 100 sheep at the Castle of Mey, Caithness, has a bank balance of £15,000, thanks to a fund set up by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.