Italy: no place for pets?

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David Brenner's rescue cats. Photo: David Brenner
07:55 CEST+02:00
The attitude some Italians display towards their pet cats and dogs can be disconcerting and upsetting. David Brenner, a British expatriate in Abruzzo, has noticed distinct differences in town and country approaches, and wonders how widespread the situation is.

Plans for this article went out of the window when I read a friend’s Facebook post that she’d found six newborn kittens in a garbage bin. Bad enough, but made infinitely worse by the realisation that the kittens had been tightly wrapped in plastic bags in a bid to suffocate them.

Fortunately, this awful event had a happier outcome. All the kittens survived. And after a hectic, but successful, search to find a surrogate feline mother, permanent homes have been lined-up for all six once they're old enough to be moved.

All this was yet another example of the curiously ambivalent attitude that Italians seem to have towards their pets. Like everything else in this country, I don’t doubt there are radical regional differences. So we’ll talk about our corner of Abruzzo.

The first thing that strikes you is the chasm of care that exists between town and country - where we live.

Here, vets are for farm animals - which are valuable; as opposed to pets - which aren’t. Depending on where your sympathies lie, you’ll regard these local attitudes as either callous, or clear-eyed.

Neutering is seen as both expensive and unnatural and therefore ignored. Consequently there’s an annual glut of puppies and kittens. Though I don’t doubt that the kind of cull I’ve described above – which happened in Le Marche - also happens around here, I have no personal evidence of this and couldn’t even begin to estimate the scale of any such problem.

What is obvious is that natural selection and predation is allowed to run its course. Mostly, pets live outside. Not perhaps as bad as it sounds as there are barns aplenty and shelter is readily available. But foxes abound. Young animals wander. There are roads and cars. Should they become ill - and this applies to pretty much all pets, young or old, they either recover - or they die.

Life expectancies consequently aren't generally that long, because why spend money on medical treatment ensuring a pet’s survival, when each year the cat and dog population renews itself?

Similarly - and there are one or two such instances reported locally each August - what’s the problem with leaving the cat, (or more usually the dog), in some autostrada rest area because it’s getting in the way of holiday plans, when - hey ! - we can find another when we get back home.

Holiday kennels and catteries? Few. Of uncertain quality. And above all, expensive.

All that said however, it would be wrong to think that the countryside is awash with mistreated cats and dogs. There is genuine affection and care displayed towards their pets by most owners.

You can discuss whether an unending diet of pasta is good for dogs; or wonder what exactly the cats eat - but they do eat. And they’ll be fed and generally left to their own devices. Dogs bark at intruders - plus anyone else who ventures nearby; form-up into little packs and go round the countryside being a minor nuisance; and in winter, go hunting. Cats look after rats and mice - and too much that’s non-verminous besides - and sometimes are allowed into the house for the kids to play with.

That’s their side of the deal. Trouble is, it’s not much of a deal. When they start becoming a burden, too often, the deal's off.

By contrast, towns seem to be beacons of enlightenment. The concept of ‘the pet’ is accepted, and while the not infrequent sight of a chihuahua stuffed into a handbag can take this concept to 'pet as fashion accessory', there’s an acceptance that with pet ownership comes a degree of responsibility.

Before we moved from the UK in 2007, we worried that veterinary standards in Abruzzo wouldn’t be up to what we were used to. After taking more time and trouble to select just the right vet for the cats than we spent choosing just the right doctor for us, this turned out to have been a groundless fear. The standard of treatment we’re received for the Siamese and two Birmans we arrived with from England - and our subsequent five local rescue cats - has been exemplary.

But a little different.

We’ve found a degree of hands-on involvement expected of us that would’ve been unthinkable in England. We’d been used to stuffing pills down throats - but not giving injections. (Surprisingly easy once you’ve accepted there’s zero chance of stabbing your cat to death. And the opportunity to show how much you’ve subliminally absorbed watching all those episodes of ER and Grey’s Anatomy.)

And you go to your regular pharmacy to buy any necessary medication, which you then administer in mini-size doses of the weakest human prescriptions.

We seem to be a lot more closely involved in the welfare and treatment of our pets than we ever were before.

The veterinary care we’ve had from the San Francesco clinic in Lanciano (and at that rarity, a fully-staffed 24/7/365 practice in Pescara) has been matchless. Aside from the regular annual check-ups, when we finally had to let go of our senior Birman at the fine age of 17, it was handled with kindness and dignity - coupled with no little astonishment that a cat had actually reached that age.

In return, we seem to bring a bit of novelty value to the practice. Our Birmans and Siamese were the first pedigree cats Roberta and Luca had seen since leaving vet school; while we also confirmed to them that the English are indeed a wildly-eccentric bunch of animal lovers, by trooping the five rescue cats through the surgery to be neutered.

The town/country contrast hasn’t faded after getting-on for seven years, though the more brutal aspects - like that report of newborn kittens stuffed in plastic bags and dumped in a bin to die - still have the power to shock and anger.

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I hope we never become truly at ease with the casual indifference with which cats and dogs are treated by our neighbours.

Are things really that different - and if so, how - in Piedmont, or Puglia, or Sicily? Or in Milan or Naples? Perhaps not. Too many reports to be apocryphal of dogs being poisoned by bait left out for foxes; or worse, to keep them away from truffle-rich patches of woodland; or to settle a grievance with the dog's owner.

The unsettling bottom line for me is the random unpredictability of it all. Haven’t any idea why, but round here, the height of chic is to give your dog an English name. And I don’t mean Rover or Rex. I mean Penny, or Maude, or in the case of a rottweiler rescued and adopted by friends of ours, Sheila.

Sheila was originally acquired as a guard dog. Except her owners didn’t think she looked fierce enough. So they trimmed her ears with scissors. Then wondered why Sheila became unmanageable.

While you can live with Italy’s mindless bureaucracy; the potholes; the Post Office queues; and the death-wish driving as an unavoidable downside (to the considerable upside) of living here, the scarcely credible stupidity, cruelty and ill-treatment inflicted on ‘pets’ is an altogether far more sinister malaise.

Maybe we Brits truly are impossibly and foolishly sentimental when it comes to animals. But maybe the other side of the coin is even worse.

In 2007, after a lengthy career as a television broadcast journalist in the UK - latterly with BBC World - David, his wife Pauline and their three cats moved to Abruzzo , where they now run Villasfor2, providing three holiday rental villas just for couples. David still finds himself enchanted, bemused and infuriated by living in Italy – sometimes all at the same time - and his regular blog AboutAbruzzo charts daily life in this little-known region.

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