AS you watch the West Ham footballer Kurt Zouma (below) drop-kick his cat across the kitchen, on a phone video taken by his brother, your response is involuntary. The animal’s frame twists and shudders alarmingly as it lands. What a bastard! How cruel!

And then, on a moment’s reflection, your not-entirely ideal relationship to the creatures in your own life, and other relationships you have observed, comes to mind.

I have always been troubled by pet animals, particularly close-kin mammals like dogs and cats. They have seemed both too familiar and too strange for me; the shocking stare of mutual recognition, and then – claws, teeth, hunting behaviours, latent wildness.

As a primary one in Langloan, Coatbridge, I remember being accompanied everywhere by Mrs Devlin’s monstrous brown mongrel poodle, Shandy. The dog was so solicitous and protective, often snarling at approaching playmates, that I decided to let it know I was rejecting it.

This involved slaps, sticks, stones, shouting and (yes) kicking. Eventually, the poor devoted animal got the message. I’m still wracked with guilt.

Maybe as a result, I’ve never explicitly invited a dog or cat into my life. When I once found myself to be responsible for a Prince Charles spaniel called Toffee, as part of my post-separation family duties, it was… a complex affair.

The National: Kurt Zouma

Who could be immune to the charms of a lapdog, breathing deeply across your thighs, big brown eyes looking up at you as you watch telly, two mammals huddling together?

Yet I also recall nights of complete frustration, when the dog had been under-walked during the day, and just couldn’t settle after midnight, yelp-yelping away. Toilet stop, filled water bowl, 2am short walk… no relief. And then the snap reaction, when jolted out of sleep from yet another sequence of neurotic barking – a hand or two across the dog’s hind quarters. Hard enough to shock him into silence.

I wouldn’t do that to my child, or any child, especially considering the degree to which it was done unto me, in my own childhood. So why did I feel free to thwack the precious Toffee at 3am, till he stopped making his racket? Again, the emotion that dominates my memory is shame.

But I often think there should be a broader shame about our stances towards pets like cats or dogs. I felt it whenever Toffee was taken out to a broad area like Mugdock Park in Bearsden. Let off the leash, he would explode into nature; running beautifully, seizing everything of interest in his teeth, tracking rubber rings as they flew over his head to their exact landing place.

I’d see him, and wonder what ancient hunting genes were being briefly re-ignited, before the return of collar and lead, the back of the car, the kitchen gate. I’d then feel a huge sadness for Toffee, and others like him: suburban dogs, equipped to do so much more than be a leg-warmer for weary info-workers.

I feel a surge towards working dogs, whether it’s in policing or guiding the blind or – most romantic of all – herding sheep. There is at least some sense that their agency, as skilled and capable creatures, is being respected by their employment; that their physiology and talents are being appropriately developed and stretched.

But I will confess to a silent contempt – not for those poor over-bred dogs themselves, but their vain and status-conscious owners. Them and their “pedigree breeds” – with distorted features and laboured breathing, with health conditions and pathologies already inbred – are often grotesque spectacles. The dog inadvertently, the owners culpably.

If I ever take a canine into my life, it will be the son or daughter of a long line of scraggy mongrels and will have full reign over a decently varied natural landscape. This is an overall circumstance I can’t much foresee. But hold me to it.

As for cats, however… part of the shock of the Zouma video is the sight of a cat being so subject to human control that it can’t evade or slink away from its fate. (Indeed, in another part of the video, it takes all of the footballer’s athleticism to chase it round the kitchen, in order to spank it).

I’ve never had a cat in my life. But anyone who’s used social media in the last decade might imagine, from all the postings, that any home or freelance worker must possess one, by law. Their official duties being to curl imperiously around their owners laptops or impassively observe human labours from the nearest shelf. Or pose for memes, where the captions play off their emotionless, lordly features.

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The idea that cats retain some of their otherness and sheer animality – as opposed to dogs, who are bred to be slaveringly co-dependent with humans – is richly explored by the philosopher John Gray, in his 2021 book Feline Philosophy.

What Gray likes about cats is that “unless they are hungry or mating or directly threatened, they default to a condition of rest or contentment or tranquility”, he says to Vox magazine. “The sensation of life itself is enough for them.”

That’s very different to the human condition, suggests Gray. We bipeds are restless and easily bored, we seek out stories and stimulation, we crave calmness but always upend it when it’s close. So what can cats teach us?

“Live for the sensation of life, not for the story you tell about your life. But never take anything, including that commandment, too seriously. That’s the great lesson from our feline friends,” concludes Gray. “No animal is more spontaneously playful than cats. Which is why, if they could philosophize, it would be for fun.”

If Gray is right about cats, it adds another layer to the shock of that Zouma video: the indignity for a feline, to be so untranquilly treated! But the video might also point to something unresolved about how we urbanites and suburbanites regard these natural creatures in our lives.

In these pandemic years, pet-buying has been on the rise transatlantically – but so also has pet abandonment, as people return to more normal working practices. There are veterinary reports of domestic pets becoming neurotic and unsettled as their bonds with their owners are intensified during lockdowns, and then radically revert. Zouma and cat may literally have been under each other’s feet too much (though nothing excuses his cruelty).

Overall, I don’t want to sound like I am down on human-animal companionship. I was enriched by my relationship with Toffee. All the stuff you read in neuroscience about the emotions that humans share with other evolved mammals – care, play, sadness, fear, anger, curiosity – is reinforced by life with a King Charles spaniel.

But I think if we are to have pets in our lives, then the autonomy of cats is probably the best relationship. At the very least, as our animal “kin” are being trashed in the current Great Extinction, we need to develop some appreciation for the dignity and rights of those exterminated animals. We need to be more than sentimental about them – we need to recognise they are our biospheric peers. Maybe we need to experience their pushback upon us.

If the sheer meanness of the footballer’s video can bring these considerations to the fore, then it’s done some good. Otherwise, if the cats ever do return to Mr Zouma’s domicile, I’d say goodbye to that sofa upholstery.