The British and their pets

Let no one say I hide from the tough topics. I asked what you wanted to hear about and I got questions about budget cuts (destructive), mental health services (needed more than ever given the budget cuts), British television (mixed but I’m not much of a TV watcher these days), and what the British think of Americans (long story). So let’s start with the heavy-duty stuff and talk about the British and their pets. This is justified because Sandy Sue wrote, “I’d love to hear about Brits and their pets. In one post you said they don’t holler for their animals like we do–I loved that. More!”


Spoiler alert: The Big Guy's been found.

Spoiler alert: The Big Guy’s been found.

Dogs played an important part in introducing us to the village. Wild Thing has a gift for starting conversations with pretty much anyone, and if she sees someone with a dog she stops to talk if she can. In any country. In Kate Fox’s book Watching the English, I read that dogs are an accepted conversation starter. A bit like the weather. They’re a nice neutral topic that allows shy people to connect, and Fox writes about the English as a publicly shy people. The national assumption is that each person goes into the public sphere surrounded by an invisible privacy bubble and it would be rude to break in. Commuters who see each other morning after morning may, after a year or so, go all out and nod to each other. Which is why they need pre-programmed topics—the weather, the dog, the whatever—in order to break out and enjoy a bit of human companionship.

Lucky us that Wild Thing’s quirks fit so well with the country’s. Our acquaintances and then friendships in the village grew out of Ida’s habit of talking about dogs. When we first came here as visitors, we met a few dogs, and through them a few people, and through them a few more people, and here we are, all these years later, still pestering them.

One of the first things Wild Thing noticed was that if you asked people about their dogs, a certain number of them would tell you entire tales: She’s a rescue dog and she’s settled in wonderfully but she’s still afraid of people with hats. Oh, he’s had a difficult day—he saw the vet this morning. Last week she was stung by a bee and it’s been very traumatic. These weren’t just dogs we were hearing about. Each one was the central character in a novel.

I don’t know if more people adopt abandoned dogs in the U.K. than in the U.S., but I do know we hear about it more often. Stop to admire a dog and if it’s a rescue dog that’s the first thing you’ll learn. Which leads me to wonder not only if more people adopt rescue dogs here but if more people abandon them. Or is it that more of them find a home? Or do we just hear about it more because people need the outlet of talking about their dogs?

Dogs are welcome in more public places here than in—well, it’s hard to generalize about the U.S., but certainly than in Minnesota. Lots of cafes and pubs welcome them. If we’re not sure and don’t see a sign in the window, we’ve learned to poke our heads through the door and ask. A few even offer dog biscuits. Some set water bowls outside the door, whether or not dogs are welcome inside. At singers night in the nearby pub, dogs are a regular part of the mix. Every so often one will add a well-timed howl and be welcomed with general hysteria. One of the organizers has a small repertoire of dog songs that he’ll sing at times like that. Mostly, though, the dogs are content to listen and hope someone will drop a sandwich.

As a result of being taken more places (or I’m guessing it’s a result), dogs are generally more relaxed in public than a small and unscientific survey leads me to believe they are in the U.S. I do hear and read about aggressive dogs, but so far our experience has been good. A bit of growling now and then, the occasional pup who’s too big and enthusiastic its brain, but mostly they get along peaceably and behave well. Even if one or another of them howls at a song. We’ve all wanted to once in a while, haven’t we?

We’ve usually warned away from snappish ones by their owners.

In Minnesota, state law governed where dogs could and couldn’t be taken. A coffee shop near our old house let dogs in because they couldn’t see a reason not to, and it worked well until they got caught by an inspector from the Minnesota Department of Dog Fur and General Bad Behavior and received a couple of stern warnings. They still couldn’t bear to kick dogs out but we took pity on them and stopped bringing ours in. Other dog-owning regulars did the same. Then the state passed a law that made it illegal to tie a dog outside while you went in for coffee. No, it didn’t specify coffee. It could have been shampoo or a bottle of milk. But it limited what people could do with their dogs. We could walk them and take them back home. We could keep them at home, and we could let them out in the yard if we had a way to keep them inside it. But we couldn’t integrate them into our lives the way we can here.

Because I live in the country, people keep other pets and semi-pets. On the other side of the valley, B. keeps peacocks. Come spring we hear them yelling something that sounds like “Help! Help!” The peahens want nothing more out of their lives than to lead their chicks onto the road and wander up and down it, and I’ve learned to slow down near B.’s house. The peacocks like the road as well. One year I saw the local half-size bus herding a peacock down the road toward me at maybe half a mile per hour. As the bird walked, he threw his feet forward—not quite in a goosestep but it was close enough to make me understand why they named the step after a bird. He had his fan spread and was yelling furiously for help, or for reinforcements. When he got to the house and no reinforcements had come, he stepped aside and let the bus through.

I didn’t have a camera.

Any number of people keep chickens and a few keep geese. Some of these are just chickens and geese and some are pets. One year two of M.’s chickens died, leaving her with just one, which was so lonely she’d follow M. from place to place as she worked in the garden and would sit on the windowsill when M. went in. Eventually M. got another hen or two and the chicken went back to acting like a chicken.

M.’s hens are battery hens that aren’t laying as heavily as they used to and would otherwise be slaughtered. They come to her practically featherless and in terrible shape, hardly knowing what to do with the great outdoors. Then before long they feather out and start pecking.

A few years back, someone not far from the village adopted a lamb with a broken leg that she found on the moor. She located the farmer and told him about it and the farmer offered to shoot it, so she loaded the lamb in the car, got its leg set, and raised it until it became a ram and a bit of a handful, when she found someone with a smallholding who was willing to take it. By that time, it didn’t consider itself a sheep anymore and didn’t settle in well with the other sheep. Eventually it made itself a home with the horses.

And then, of course, there are cats.

When the stray we adopted, Big Guy, disappeared a couple of weeks ago, we put a note on the village Facebook page, which is all you have to do to activate the village network. For a while, the comments were all about I hope you find him and next time try putting butter on his feet the first time you let him out. Then last Saturday night we got a phone call: The Big Guy had showed up outside S.’s house, yelling his head off, and they were feeding him. They’d heard he was ours. The kids wanted to adopt him and the parents were being won over. They said he was shy about coming inside but they’d made him a space on the porch, where the boiler is, so it’s warm. Their house is just downhill from where he was first found. Apparently that’s where he wants to live. It’s got a beautiful view and I guess he likes it. Wild Thing told them that he didn’t seem happy here, so if they were willing to keep him that would be great.

I stopped by on Sunday morning to bring them some cat food left when Moggy died. Fast Eddie still eats kitten food. And dog food. He plans to be a dog when he grows up. Anyway, I stopped by and there was the Big Guy, cuddling with one of the kids. He was happy to see me but not as if he’d been lost and I’d found him. He was indeed a bit shy about coming into the house but when he saw a bowl of cat food he decided he’d take the risk. It’s hard to know whether he’ll stay, but he does seem to like the neighborhood, they’re treating him well, and I think he’s found a home. Even if they do call him Marvin—Starvin’ Marvin.

I don't  think the Big Guy's going to sleep here--he's not much of a jumper--but they made him a nice warm bed in an old doll carriage.

I don’t think the Big Guy’s going to sleep here–he’s not much of a jumper–but they made him a nice warm bed in an old doll carriage.

While I was down there, Wild Thing got a call from S.’s neighbors, who reported that the Big Guy had been trying to get into their house. Then A. called. She thought she’d seen the Big Guy at yet another house in the neighborhood and she’d gone to ask if he was their cat but they don’t have a cat.

Oh, and W. thought he’d seen the Big Guy running across a back road nearby.

It takes a village to find a cat. And in Big Guy’s case, to house one. For the moment, though, he’s housed and fed, which is good because it’s been raining a lot and the wind has been so strong that during some of the gusts I couldn’t walk into it.

How is this any different from the U.S.? People in our old neighborhood people also put themselves out to care for cats. One of ours, the much-loved Big Ol’ Red Cat, was a stray who was taken in initially by our neighbor, D. But she couldn’t keep him because the cat she already had was pounding on him, so she brought him to us and he settled in happily. The underlying feeling about cats was the same. But in a city a cat can fall off the radar without wandering far. Just like a person can. Living in the city, you end up with a series of short stories. In a village, you hear the entire novel.

63 thoughts on “The British and their pets

  1. Great to hear Big Guy is happy and well! As the proud owner of my own feline (Terry) I was keen to know what happened to him. We Brits certainly are a nation of animal lovers. We will abandon our elderly, ignore our youngsters but look the wrong way at anything with feathers or fur and the whole nation is up in arms.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Animals are definitely a great conversation starter. I don’t have pets here in the U.S., but as I walk as much as possible, it’s the local dog walkers that the kids and I have most contact with. I know the names of local dogs but don’t know the names of all my neighbors. True fact.

    Before we emigrated, we had pet hissing cockroaches. They were a conversation starter.

    In my youth in Fife, there was a man who frequented the same pub as I did who had trained his dog to go to the bar for him and get him drinks and snacks. Nobody batted an eyelid about there being a dog in the pub, only that it didn’t spill the drink.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The US has too many laws. I would be much more inclined to talk to someone with a dog in the coffee shop than just plain people. I love dogs (and cats) and if the person wasn’t interested in talking, I’d talk to the dog. Our public library used to have a cat – Book’ems – then someone had an allergy and complained about cat hair in the library books and Book’ems had to go. I hope Big Guy hangs around.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Sounds just like our village. I’d feel quite at home. We know newcomers by their animals before we know them. Sometimes we only know the animals’ names. Or we give the animals names … Our Pearli (of the Pearli’s Pickles on my blog), is known by the entire village…. Although, she’s now two, so she trollops around a lot less.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Abso-posa-lutely! Both, and they generally know who’ll be walking when, and get worried if the routine is messed up… (That’s a good and a bad thing and brings up that tenuous line between the nosy parker and the caring community – I like to think mostly the latter.) Not having dogs, but our house being on one of the routes and my office overlooking the street, if someone’s not been passing for a while, I do wonder why.

        The interaction I most want to capture on camera, but it’s really difficult, is our Pearli and a Border Collie, Arrow. I’ve seen Arrow heading down our street, seeing Pearli cross the road and then, seeing a cat, and on realising that it’s her, instead of haring after her, he slows down to a trot and meanders over for a chat.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. We had a cat living under our steps this summer. We fed it, we let it sleep on our laps when out on the deck, we welcomed the little fella into our hearts – now it is up the road at a neighbors house. We might have felt rejected and betrayed if this had been any other creature than a cat.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I will never forget going into a pub with you and seeing a dog sitting on a stool at the bar. I thought I was being hilarious and said, “Hello Mate.” Dog’s owner, a young man, looked at me like I was a bother & a bore. I’ve been dining out on that one ever since.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Having just come back to the US after spending three months in Cornwall, I have to agree with you about it seeming to be much more acceptable there to have a dog out and about with you nearly anywhere and everywhere you go. It’s quite nice, really!

    When my fiance and I would go to do our laundry, we also encountered a cat who was obviously well-fed and loved, but who liked to come in to the launderette and get warm. He would come right up to anyone who came in, and sometimes, if he wasn’t shooed off, make himself comfortable on a pile of clothes that had just been removed from a dryer. A kind anonymous soul left behind a pet bed with a bit of food and a note that read “This is for the friendly launderette cat, please do not remove”.

    This is just one of the very many things I fell in love with about Cornwall.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Great story. What town was that in? Our local movie theater has a cat that as far as we understand the situation isn’t theirs but lives nearby and somehow manages to work his way into the lobby most evenings. Wild Thing offered to buy him a ticket once but they wouldn’t let her.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Now what do I have to think of the fact that in Britain it’s a “ROYAL Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals” [] and “only” a “NATIONAL Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children” []? Animals worth more than children? ;)
    As to strays: when we were still living in Karnes County and ever so many stray cats and dogs came by, we used to joke that they must have had signs out pointing them to our place if they wanted to be taken in and cared for. ;)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good point about animals and children. And the idea of organizing to protect animals came well before the idea of organizing to protect children. What can I say? There’s some deep cultural information tucked inside that set of facts.


      • On that score (I’ve clearly not got enough to do today (not)), South Africa’s oldest charity is the equivalent of the RSPCA, followed by its children’s equivalent. And both started by Brits. Need I say more?

        Liked by 1 person

  9. I love animals and have always had a dog or cat. My landlord (of 6 yrs in the states) will not allow pets not matter how often I ask or with tears in my eyes :-( There is a cat on the market that was created with the elderly in mind that looks, feels, and purrs just like a real cat. It is supposed to help with loneliness and anxiety (i.e. live pets for the elderly, gives them something to care for, etc.). Anyway, this is what I asked for as a Christmas present to get around the landlord rules. There is more than one way to skin a cat!….oh wait that didn’t sound good…


  10. I love that our beaches are generally dog friendly. The dogs are supposed to be on leashes, but not many pay any attention to that. On the flip side, there are those who can’t seem to keep their dogs under control. We’ve had a few close calls with dogs getting aggressive with our little pooch. Those are the folks who ruin the freedom for everyone else.

    Love this Big Guy story. I’ve always been partial to ginger cats. He looks like one who needs a whole village to look after him.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Maybe because it’s California, but most businesses where we live are very pet friendly. Of course, people have ways around it- they just slap what looks like a “service dog” vest on their dog and bring them in (I’m talking more grocery stores and places like Target).

    Liked by 1 person

  12. That was interesting.
    I loathe the way we can’t take dogs places here. So much of my life is near enough to be done on foot, and my dog needs the exercise too. Unless there are two of us so one of us can stand outside the shops or the post office with the dog, then I must leave her at home. Sad.
    I found the hen bit to be quite amusing. She needed company, I reckon.
    But the best for me was the lamb who got too used to being a pet and couldn’t sheep, and went to live with the horses. We treat horses so differently than other farm animals, don’t we? Perhaps because we seldom eat them. (here)
    I still want chickens, which the city allows. I still want goats, which the city does not allow. I’m a patient person…

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Pingback: Adaptation and pig headedness | Notes from the U.K.

  14. Really great post! I’ve never been to the UK. We have lived in several parts of the US, and based on your description, it sounds like people in the DC area are most similar (with a bubble and all). However, the village mentality is very much like the South (where we live now). If Nugget, our feline friend, went missing, I could post it on Facebook and the whole county would know about it in an hour. Plus, there are lots of hole-in-the-wall places where animals on a stool would not make one blink an eye. People are big on locally owned establishments here, and they probably wouldn’t listen is the gov. came poking their nose in. Not to mention, they’d have to be found first. A lot of them look like houses. They have no sign, but locals know they can go to Mr. John’s for a great breakfast. Thanks for sharing. I love learning new things :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would love to stop by Mr. John’s for breakfast right about now. Even though it’s 3 pm.

      I grew up in New York and learned to look past people on the street or in the subway. To acknowledge them was to court trouble. So yes, bubble there as well.


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  16. As we know, dogs have owners, but cats have staff. It sounds as if Big Guy has been shopping around for his personal servants. Here, in Southern California, we have many places that welcome dogs in their establishments and a lot of dog parks where they can meet and greet and play with other people’s pets. Our neighborhood has many dog owners who pass our house.Every time I see one, I stop to talk to it and ask the owner questions. The owners are also very vigilant about picking up the leavings of their pets on our plants. We have an indoor cat now. In the past, we had four indoor-outdoor cats all at the same time. They used to visit our neighbors for treats.

    Liked by 1 person

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