What is it about my twin ragamuffin cats that proves such a turn-off for the opposite sex?
That's what I wondered yesterday, as I read the curious results of a study at Idaho's Boise State University, in the US, where researchers presented around 1400 women with photographs of two men in their early 20s - one stroking a cat, the other not. The women were then asked how they would feel about the prospect of a casual date or long-term relationship with each of the men.
Those chaps shown with cats were far less likely to arouse romantic interest because they were seen as "less masculine, more neurotic, and less datable", researchers said.
Those results came as a surprise to lead researcher Shelly Volsche, who had assumed the cats would make the men look "trustworthy, gentle and caring". But I was less shocked. When I adopted Bells and Archie in my mid-20s, I was warned that my new feline friends could have a ruinous effect on my love life. Cat-owners are perceived as introverts who prefer to spend time alone, I was told, whereas dog-owners are seen as sociable and outdoorsy. (As it happens - I'm an outgoing extrovert who loved cats since childhood, so I don't fit this dichotomy).
And for some reason I do not understand, cats are associated with femininity whereas dogs are seen as masculine - and so it's easy to understand why, even in these enlightened times, many straight men believe they need to avoid cats like the plague if they are to find a partner.
But I didn't care. I spent a lot of time in my late 20s on dating apps like Tinder and Happn, and I always made sure to use at least one photograph of Bells and Archie on my profile. Adopting my cats is the best decision I've ever made, and I've never been in any mood to hide them away. My work managing my startup (Heights, a brain health and mental wellbeing service) means many long, stressful hours spent alone. Happy to leap onto my lap for a hug whenever I call their name, Bells and Archie proved the perfect company, doing wonders for my mental health.
It's been suggested that a cat's purr has evolved perfectly to soothe our stress, and is now the most comforting sound known to humans - something I can totally believe. My cats were part of my identity, I thought, and I have no desire to keep them secret.
If you hate Bells and Archie, I thought, then there's no point coming to my house, even for a one-night stand. I wanted to make clear that we came as a non-negotiable package.
Dating apps generally don't tell you when somebody rejects you, so I'll never know exactly how many dates I lost because of those photos. But I don't mind. Modern dating is hard, and as any Tinder user will know, you have to cycle through a lot of failed encounters before you find the right person. Anything that can short-circuit this process is very welcome.
The cat photos also gave me an easy excuse when I failed to land a date: it must be because of my pets, I thought, rather than my looks or personality. And for those women with whom I did match, my feline housemates provided good conservation fodder, helping us to leapfrog the classic "Hello, how are you?" drudgery.
Then I was introduced through friends to my wife Melissa, the proud owner of a Staffordshire bull terrier and firmly a "dog person". When we started dating, she found it hard to adapt to my pro-feline lifestyle. She's something of a clean freak, and it would drive her mad to see the cats slouch in from our garden, covered in mud (it still does, I think). They quickly got fluff all over her favourite clothes - she has now learnt not to wear black.
What's more, I've always allowed the cats to share my bed, something Melissa struggled with at first. Archie sleeps peacefully, causing little fanfare, but Bells spends the night outside hunting, before coming in around 6am. Without fail, she then leaps onto Melissa's chest and demands a hug by purring incessantly. It used to drive Melissa mad, but she's learned to embrace it I think.
Indeed, she has gradually come to share my view that cats might just be the perfect pets: they're as affectionate as dogs but with a fraction of the fuss, and we can easily leave them to their own devices for a weekend without getting a sitter. But maybe think carefully before sticking them on your Tinder profile.
As told to Luke Mintz
Five signs you're a cat man
Not sure whether you prefer felines or Fido? Here are five signs you're the former...
1. You're not a natural host
Do you spend most of your own dinner parties tidying up in the kitchen? Did you buy a doormat telling people to take off their shoes? Do you curtly usher your friend's children straight through the house to play in the garden? It's official; your friends are feline. While dog owners welcome guests - muddy wellies and all - with open arms, cat men are mess-averse and unafraid to tell you.
2. You don't know your neighbours
Love thy dog, love thy neighbour. Dog men are the type who are always popping around to lend a hand, or nosing over the fence to ask where you got your hot tub. As a cat man, you cherish your privacy and decorum.
3. You've loved lockdown
The embodiment of British reserve, cat men err on the side of caution; your affection is something to be earned. Your icy demeanour means you secretly loved the lockdown, and you adapted easily to solitary life. Dog men, meanwhile, missed sharing fist pumps, and patting each other's backs.
4. Kissing pets is off-limits
You shuddered with disgust when Boris Johnson scooped up his rescue dog Dilyn and planted a smacker on his furry face. You marvel at the men in the park who choose to shower their dog, not their wife, with slobbery caresses. You and your cat are often socially distanced, and you're fine with that.
5. You're fiercely independent
Like your feline friend, you opt out of organised fun. You leave the room when a game of charades is announced and nothing can make your blood turn cold quicker than the word "conga". As a rule, you stick to solo pursuits, with cycling and jogging being your preferred activities. And forget frisbee.
By Alice Hall