Pets? I should Coco

My cat never bothers me with her suspicions about her cheating boyfriend

It only ever takes a brief flick through a fashion magazine for me to find hundreds of unlikely garments that I would never consider wearing - even for a £1,000 bet. Those heel-free high heels that are everywhere this season? I can almost feel my ankles snap just looking at them. A suit jacket worn without trousers, or a skirt, or even a sneaky hint of hot pants? Thanks, but not now, not ever. A skirt so short that the hemline sits above your crotch? Again, no.

But quite the most bet-resistant garment I've ever laid eyes on turned up, not in the fashion but in the news sections last week. That's where I first glimpsed Beth and Brian Willis wearing the jumpers that they have fashioned from the fur of their dead dogs.

These eye-popping creations were started while the dogs were still alive and moulting. Mrs Willis, recognising that their fur was just too good to waste, went around the house running a wet hand over the carpet and picking it up. The jumpers were apparently inspired by a dog-fur stole that Princess Di once wore to Crufts, and Mr Willis's, in particular, looks as if he's taken a knife to Rowlf, the musical dog from The Muppets, and skinned him.

I have to say that beneath my horrified burst of laughter, I did feel a kinship with the Willises. In some way, I appreciated the couple's clear love of their dogs and their wish to commemorate them in an (how shall I put this?) inventive way.

A love of pets is often derided as the sentimentality of petty Middle Englanders, and I've been derisive in my time, too. My mother, a great animal lover, has had all manner of pets: Honeybunny the rabbit, Rosie and Jim the lovebirds, Godzilla the fish. Her present haul of two cats and two dogs is the smallest she's had in a long time, but she makes up for the scarcity by lavishing huge amounts of love on them.

She regularly comments that she likes animals more than human beings, which is always heart-warming for her children. She gave her favourite dog a name uncomfortably close to mine, which means she often, absent-mindedly, calls me Cora - and then apologises to the dog for the lapse. She holds birthday parties for the pets: when a former housemate once called up and left a crazed rendition of "Happy Birthday" on the answerphone for Cora, my mother didn't see any humour in the gesture at all. "Of course Mark would want to celebrate Cora's birthday," she told me later. "Ye-es, that's right," I replied nervously.

And yet, since getting Coco, a cat of my own, I can see her point. I still have a problem with those people who give all their spare cash to donkey sanctuaries rather than charities that help, you know, humans, but I have to admit that the love between person and pet is undeniably pure. Coco may be needy - she will only ever eat if someone is watching her - but those needs are simple. Essentially, they amount to food, water, and the occasional stroke of her tummy. She never comes to me with worries about her alcohol problem or tells me she suspects her boyfriend is cheating. She is entirely stress-free.

So stress-free, in fact, that a study found last month that cat ownership cuts the risk of heart attack by almost a third. It's not the first to have shown the benefits brought by pets - far from it. In 1988, a study suggested that children's cognitive development would benefit from them having a pet; in 1990, it was found that pet owners had fewer minor health problems; in 2002, researchers at the University of Warwick discovered that small children who owned a pet had school attendance levels of 18 half-days a year more than their non-pet-owning peers. Having a pet has been found to help with everything from depression levels among men with Aids to dangerous blood pressure spikes in stockbrokers. It's the golden ticket, the four-leaf clover.

In the tough times we're living through right now, with climate change apparently worsening by the day and countless intractable conflicts around the globe, pet ownership may offer only the tiniest sliver of hope in a dark, dark world. But what can I say? It's better than a slap in the face with a wet fish (something an animal lover would never give you).

As my last column was about libraries, and this one is about pets, I am beginning to feel very paro chial, but it makes a welcome, if fleeting, break from the world's atrocities. Next time, I'm sure, I'll be back to discussing the revoltingly low conviction rate for rape, or the rising threat to safe and legal abortion. For now, though, I think I might just go and fill up Coco's food bowl.

Kira Cochrane is women's editor of the Guardian

This article first appeared in Is Boris a fake?

2008-03-31