They used to put sick cats to sleep; now they call them diabetics and tell you to give them daily injections

Do you want to hear something disgusting? Don't raise your hopes. This isn't the one about me and the goat. I'll save that for when I'm really desperate for material. In fact, to many British people, it will probably be heart-warming.

Once you have children, you find yourself doing strange things that you would never have believed yourself capable of in normal life. Owning animals is one example. I had never seen the point of it.

As with most such subjects connected with family life, there is a cruel poem about it by Philip Larkin called "Take One Home for the Kiddies", although Larkin fans will know that it was children he hated. He had nothing against small animals. In fact, one of his most heartbreaking poems was inspired by finding a hedgehog caught in his lawnmower. The pet poem ends:

Living toys are something novel,
But it soon wears off somehow.
Fetch the shoebox, fetch the shovel -
Mam, we're playing funerals now.

Our own pets have not been thriving in the incredibly wet and windy East Anglian winter. The rabbit died, apparently of exposure. He had been sharing a hutch with a guinea pig for about six months. Experts say that it is dangerous to put two males together, because they can spend their time fighting. There was no problem with that. Quite the opposite. Virtually every day, the rabbit would make compulsive attempts to consummate the relationship. I didn't know which one to feel more sorry for. The rabbit, probably, because the guinea pig just looked puzzled.

Meanwhile, our cat was getting thinner and thinner until, by November, he looked like one of those Spanish donkeys that the Sun organises campaigns to rescue. He is 13 years old, which is about 487 in cat years, but even so, it seemed a bit odd. We took him to the vet, and it turns out that he is a diabetic. Have vets changed? In the past, if you took an aged animal to the vet and the vet found it had a snotty nose, he would say: "Sorry, there's nothing I can do for him except, well, you know." And then the vet would take the animal off to a back room and do the business. But now they've all been corrupted by Rolf Harris and Pet Rescue.

The vet is a very bright young woman (we all know that, these days, it is much harder to get into university to train as a vet than as a doctor - is that evidence of a sick society, or what?), and she says that it's no problem. All we need to do is give him an insulin injection every day for the rest of his life, feed him exclusively on special expensive cat food supplied by the vets, bring him in for a check-up once a month, and all will be well.

This is the disgusting part. Our cat is receiving a level of medical intervention that is unobtainable by, at a conservative estimate, 90 per cent of the world's human population. No doubt some of you are thinking - as has been suggested by friends and relations - that we should deal with our cat in the old-fashioned way, which is to tie him up in a sack with a couple of bricks and toss him into the nearest pond.

Well, for a start, I don't see a practical way of transferring the medical resources from our village veterinary clinic to the developing world. Also, there are psychological obstacles. The cat was my wife's surrogate child before she had a real child. The children have grown up with him. There is a sense that, as with leaders of totalitarian states, he cannot be permitted to die because nobody can anticipate what would happen without him. But are there limits? How has cat medical technology advanced? Will we end up wheeling him around in a basket with wheels? I anticipate a hugely drawn-out end like that of General Franco or Ferdinand Marcos, followed by entombment in our garden in a feline version of Lenin's mausoleum.

On the other hand, do you want to hear something really disgusting? This constant cat-cosseting has other results. I was putting a fork in the sink a couple of days ago. I licked it absent-mindedly, then suddenly remembered that I had just used it for forking cat food out of the tin. I held my mouth under the tap for about ten minutes, but the memory of it still makes me heave. Give me a choice between that fork and the goat, and I'll choose the goat every time.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to the dirty mac image