Tim Dowling: our family’s fussiest eaters? That would be the pets

<span>Illustration: Selman Hosgor/The Guardian</span>
Illustration: Selman Hosgor/The Guardian

The cat hates the new cat food. It’s not medically specific or dietetically optimal – in fact, its purchase was an expensive mistake – but there’s a lot of it left, and I’m determined to get rid of it by putting it all through the cat. The cat is not cooperating.

“I’m sort of on his side, to be honest,” my wife says.

“I’m not,” I say.

The dog, meanwhile, will eat any kind of food as long as it is expressly made for cats and served in the cat’s bowl. If it’s made for dogs and served in a dog bowl, it might as well be sand. From the dog’s point of view, a meal is only desirable if the cat wants it first.

For a while I tried putting the dog’s food in the cat’s bowl, but over time the cat developed a taste for it. From that point any of the new cat food I put out ended up in the dog, and any dog food left around was eaten by the cat.

“And that’s how we ended up where we are,” I say. “Just one man trying to do the right thing.”

“Tragic,” my wife says.

At 6.30am the cat wakes me in the customary manner: by pressing a paw against my nostrils to block off my airway. This is tremendously effective – I’m basically afraid to go back to sleep afterwards.

Both the dog’s and cat’s bowls are empty, but there is no way to tell who's eaten what. It’s possible I am simultaneously starving one animal and overfeeding another

I get up and go down to the kitchen, with the cat trying to trip me up on the stairs and the dog following cautiously behind. I put some of the disgusting cat food into the cat’s bowl, while the cat looks on in horror.

“Only 11 packets left,” I say. “Not long now.”

“Miaow,” says the cat.

“That is not my problem,” I say. “That’s your problem.”

The cat stares at the food while the dog stares at the cat. After a few minutes, the cat wanders across the room and out the flap. The dog takes a step toward the cat’s bowl, then stops.

“What?” I say. The dog sits.

“So now because the cat doesn’t want it, you don’t want it either?”

The dog looks at the ground.

“Anyway,” I say, “there’s still food in your bowl from last night.” The dog looks up at me, tail wagging limply.

“Who are you talking to?” my wife says, coming into the room.

“No one but myself, clearly,” I say.

“Have you fed the animals?” she says.

“There is no short answer to that question,” I say. The cat comes back in through the flap and walks up to me.

“Miaow,” it says, using my left leg as a scratching post.

“Oh my God,” I say. “Are you gonna pretend we didn’t just have this conversation?”

I make myself a coffee and go out to my office shed, where the tortoise is sunning himself on the step. Instead of starting work, I sit down next to him.

“Morning,” I say. After a long pause the tortoise turns in my direction, and gives me a hard stare.

“Fine,” I say, standing up. I lean over the raised bed and pick him a few leaves from the top of a radish. The tortoise likes radish leaves more than anything else in this world: more than lettuce, more than raspberries, more than bare human toes.

“What about cat food?” I say, watching him eat. “Do you like cat food?”

This is a rhetorical question: I already know he likes cat food. I have often seen him eat it in winter, first upending the bowl to spray the contents across the floor, and then helping himself.

“I could leave some out if you’re interested,” I say. “It’s actually sort of a gourmet brand, although the philistines round here don’t seem to think so.”

The tortoise, having finished the radish tops, makes his way to the far end of the step. By degrees he begins to blend into the dense foliage of the flowerbed, until he finally disappears.

“OK, well, nice talking to you,” I say.

When I go inside an hour later both the dog’s bowl and the cat’s bowl are empty, but there is no way to tell who has eaten what. It’s entirely possible I am simultaneously starving one animal and overfeeding another. Time, I suppose, will tell. My wife walks in.

“Why are you always in here when I come in here?” she says.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Luck?”

“I’m making a shopping list,” she says, holding up an old envelope. “Do you know if we need anything?” I open a cupboard door and peer in.

“Tinned tomatoes,” I say. “Chick peas.”

“Uh-huh,” she says.

“Potatoes,” I say. “Pet food.”

“Dog or cat?” she says.

“Does it matter?” I say.