Ways to dress a cat

Zivile Useckaite’s 10 furless Sphynx cats look like ‘an odd cross between new-born baby, plucked chicken and cat’ and to top it off, she dresses them in a variety of outfits.But it’s all for very practical reasons, she tells Gemma Tipton

Sat, Mar 1, 2014, 01:00

At this time of year, across the muddy fields of Ireland, horses are wearing overcoats, and no one turns a hair. Yet, when I speak to Zivile Useckaite about her dressed-up cats, she’s quick to want to set the record straight.

Following her appearance on the Saturday Night Show , the 30-year-old Lithuanian, who has lived in Ireland for nearly 15 years, has been inundated with questions about her hairless Sphynx cats. “I have 10,” she says. “And yes, we breed them. We’re ethical breeders. But it’s a hobby, a hobby that’s sending us bankrupt . . .”

She also has a full-time job in cancer research at St James’ Hospital, Dublin.

Perhaps it’s because the cats look so utterly strange – an odd cross between new-born baby, plucked chicken and cat – and perhaps it’s because they’re so susceptible to cold, as well as sunshine, that they have to wear clothes, but there is something very disconcerting about Useckaite’s cats. This is particularly the case with mother and son, Gina and Prince Charming, who both have David Bowie-esque odd coloured eyes.

Since the serpent first hissed into the Garden of Eden, we’ve been giving human characteristics to animals. From the fables of Aesop, to children’s bedtime stories, to animals in adult fables such as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels , and George Orwell’s Animal Farm , to engravings and paintings from art history, we seem to have a desire to turn animals into people.

Surprisingly Useckaite is more practical. “I’m very allergic to pet dander, which is why we got our first Sphynx. They make great pets, and they’re more like dogs than cats, in that they’re very affectionate.

“They all have different personalities: there are the divas, the quieter ones, the more loving ones but I don’t dress them differently because of that.”

In this, she’s a world away from the growing dress-up-your-pet trend in the US which, according to a report in Newsweek last October, was worth $330 million (€240m) in 2013 alone. Perhaps it started with the rather revolting sight of Paris Hilton accessorising her handbags with tiny dogs, a trend that thankfully never really caught on in this country, but the petwear business is forecast to be worth $35 billion by 2015. You can even buy little Chanel ensembles for your dog.

Useckaite is more practical. “They don’t like long sleeves and I’ll often just put them in T-shirts. They’re used to it from the time they’re kittens, so they don’t mind. So long as they fit properly, they’re happy.”

Back in the US, the most popular time for pet dressing up is Halloween, and the most popular costumes are pumpkins, hot dogs (ouch!) and devils.

So do animals feel embarrassed, proud, vain even, when clothed? It’s difficult to prevent oneself from reading more into animal expressions than might be there and, as a horse owner, I know the pitfalls of assuming that horses think like humans.

As animals of prey, cats have an utterly different agenda in life. Equally, while reams are written about the differences between cats and dogs (as well as innumerable quirky YouTube videos), it mainly boils down to cats historically being loners and dogs being pack animals.

Perhaps dressing up your pet, of whatever size, intensifies, almost humanises, the relationship, allowing us more of that delicious fallacy of a closer communication. It’s a subject that goes in and out of fashion, as well as social tolerance. In the 1970s, tea company PG Tips was known for its adverts featuring chimpanzees dressed as people, which came from a vogue at zoos for chimpanzee tea parties. Just last month, the Telegraph reported that the PG Tips chimps had their “lives ruined because the commercials left them struggling to act like chimps”.

Bred to be hairless, which obviously raises its own ethics, the Sphynx needs to cover up, and Useckaite sources her cats’ clothes online, and travels with them to cat shows. Is it an unnatural life? It needs to be, they quite simply wouldn’t survive in the wild.

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