It's not unusual for cats to have fussy drinking habits. A couple of years ago, I stayed the night in a Paris bookstore overrun with strays whose ritual it was to drink exclusively from a fountain beside the Seine. Then, at the other end of the spectrum, there was my old cat Monty, who used to like nothing better than getting his head down deep in some toilet water . About a year ago, my smallest and youngest cat, Bootsy, started getting up on the work surface with a kind of "Well?" look in her eyes and I, like the mug that I am, began turning on the tap for her. Obviously, this is lovely to watch, but it has now become a twice-daily ritual. In fact, I don't think I have ever seen her drink from anything else. I mean, I'm sure she could survive, if the worse came to the worst, but I now find myself worrying, when faced with a couple of days away from home, "What if she dies of dehydration?". This is an absolutely ridiculous thought, coming from someone who has a five acre mere at the bottom of his garden, but it is no more ridiculous or neurotic than most of the others that go with a life of being Your Cat's Bitch.
One of the most intriguing bits of advice I remember my late grandma giving me - along with the bit about getting rid of your teeth at the earliest possible opportunity, and lying flat on your back when there was lightning in the air - was "Never touch a dog when it's eating". I have no idea why she needed to point this out, since nobody in my family had a dog at the time, and I wasn't in the habit of inviting stray beagles in to chow down on that night's chicken balti. Nonetheless, the advice stuck in my head. Upon visiting friends' houses and seeing their canines in front of the food bowl, I would have an urge to tap them on the shoulder or stick something on their back, just to find out what kind of nameless, fangy terror my grandma was hinting at. I never did so, in the end, but I have frequently run similar experiments with my cats during mealtime, and the results have been uniformly unfrightening. Upon being distracted from his Purina One by his owner sticking a post-it to the top of his head, Delawney merely turned around and gave me a withering look of the kind that seemed to demand the caption "That's hilarious, but not as hilarious as the suspicious chunk of brown substance I left next to your pillow earlier". Janet, meanwhile, looked positively delighted to be distracted from Felix's As Good As It Looks (an accurate piece of marketing, possibly, in that it looks bloody ghastly) by my incessant tapping of his tail. My cats are greedy, certainly, but I never sense that there will be any greater repercussions by me distracted them from their culinary mission.
Drinking, however, is a different matter. None of them like to be looked at while they do it, and most of them choose to do it in secret. I know the level of the water dispenser in my kitchen goes down regularly, and I know it's not just evaporation, but I very rarely see anyone in front of it. Why is that? Is the consumption of large amounts of H20 in the cat world regarded like alcoholism in the human one: as something slightly shameful, to be done in dark places? Or is it an affront to the meat-eating masculinity of my five male cats? I'm not sure. I do know, though, that the cretinous Pablo has recently started following Bootsy up onto the work surface and looking at the tap with interest. But when I trickle it, he just stares and sticks his tongue out, as if contemplating some unfathomable chrome god. He might master it yet. More likely, though, he will just join Delawney in lapping regularly at the shore of the mere. It might be a beautiful natural expanse of water, but I imagine the countless bit of duck excrement, three quarter-drunk cans of Stella Artois that go into it every week give its contents the kind of kick that even the best water-purifiers are going to struggle to match.