Courtesy comes in twos

Watching our two animals as they go through the day, meeting and parting, passing delicately, sometimes acknowledging the other with merest glance or sniff, sometimes touching, I am reminded of an elegant courtly dance. Courtly and courteous. For apart from their innate dignity I have noticed that when two animals, such as cat and dog, share a home they behave with a certain grace towards one another.

When the small tabby ball of fluff arrived last August, the first encounter with the old dog was impressive. The kitten drew on all her three-month-old resources and asserted that size was no disadvantage. Starting off as she intended things to continue, she also established who should be fed first. We were all impressed by this small thing's definiteness.

The prickly display of intent was taken with exemplary restraint by the dog, who had after all been the sole pet for a number of years. Of course, we knew she loved cats, though the ones who take a short cut through the garden don't always realize that affection is the reason for her interest. She retreated from the kitten's pin-pricks, patiently biding her time, and allowed the kitten to attack her food, watching with a benign air until I intervened. After that the newcomer was fed first.

Even then kitten gulped her food at a startling rate and rushed over to see what was left in the other bowl. The dog once more stepped back and regarded this display of bad manners with what I can only describe as tenderness. We always knew this stray mongrel, plucked from the streets of a nearby town, had a gentle nature, but now her true breeding shone through. After a few weeks, the poaching was dealt with a warning rumble and the kitten retreated. She learnt quickly, and now the thread is evenly woven as they move through house and garden, drawing us into the pattern they make.

This thread caught me at an early age. There were always dogs, cats and other animals in our home. Now I watch my daughter's generation becoming enthralled by ferrets, hamsters, gerbils, and am pestered by the entreaties of my own child, not satisfied with snails and caterpillars, dog and cat. I try to remember. How old was I when I wrestled with the anxiety and responsibility of guinea pig and rabbit? The rabbit certainly caused considerable trouble. A frivolous creature, she managed to escape periodically (returning of her own accord after I had spent tearful hours looking for her), and produced families of half-wild young. I don't remember now what happened to them, but I do remember the initial delight of catching a glimpse of the squeaking, squirming babies. I combed neighbouring farms begging bundles of hay for my charges, but in the end, I suspect, steps had to be taken. I don't recall what eventually happened to the guinea pig and rabbit, but the vivid imprint of our time together remains.

It's a strong thread they weave, these animals, insisting we care and take notice, accepting their needs without complaint. So the all-weather walks with the dog continue day after day, and early morning hours invariably see someone groping to the garden door to let the cat out - with resignation, not resentment - although this morning she disappeared on her own and I realized she had found an open bedroom window. Perhaps tonight she will go out that way, but there is a niggling anxiety about the leap, since she is now carrying kittens. The pattern will become even more intricate as the threads increase.

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