Best in show

Living Well | Words: Larissa Dubecki | Photos: Eamon Gallagher | Posted on 18 September 2018

Putting our pets in the show ring is just another way of showing how much we love them.

The relationship between humans and cats goes back 4000 years to the moggy-worshipping ancient Egyptians. Cave paintings depicting homo sapiens and their domesticated dogs date back at least 8000 years. The impulse to put our companion animals in a judging ring is far more recent but speaks just as loudly about the emotional ties that bind owner and pet.

RSPCA estimates that just over one-third of households own a dog, while just under one-third own a cat. Australians are wild about their dogs and cats – and as the annual round of spring pet shows and competitions proves, beloved companion animals come in all shapes and sizes.

Yarra Valley local Madison Barrett will put her cat Monty on show at Melbourne’s first Cat Lovers’ Show at the Royal Exhibition Building this month. She might be only nine years old, but her preparation was meticulous: “I clipped his nails, I bathed him. He doesn’t really like it and fights us, but we pat him when he’s in the bath, then we wrap him up to dry him. I think he really likes that.”

My cats have been pushed around in a pram, dressed up in dolls’ clothes… they take it all in their stride.
Girl with snowshoe kittens
Woman and children with cats

Madison Barrett with her family and their snowshoe cats.

A champion in the making, Monty won kitten class at his show debut six months ago, giving Madison a taste of victory and a blue ribbon for her bedroom wall. But you don’t have to tell a besotted Madison that Monty is no ordinary cat. The Australian Cat Federation currently recognises 48 different breeds, including snowshoes, the cats favoured by the Barrett family (mum Rachel owns another four). 

“Snowshoes are excellent with kids – they put up with a lot,” says Rachel. “My snowshoes have been pushed around in a pram, dressed up in dolls’ clothes… they take it all in their stride. On the judging table we’ve seen cats leap off after feathers and things flying through the air, but our guys are pretty calm.”

Snowshoes are a cross between a Siamese and an American shorthair and look like an extra-fluffy Siamese. The breed was officially recognised in the 1960s. New cat breeds are evolving all the time. The appropriately named LaPerm, for instance, sports a distinctive curly coat and evolved out of a single curly-coated cat with a genetic mutation born among a barn litter in 1982. The toyger, meanwhile, sports tiger-like stripes and was recognised by the International Cat Association in 2007. 

South Morang resident Diana Costante is hoping for breed recognition of her donskoy cats, the exotically named Oleg and Varvara. She has been told it might be a year-long process to have donskoys recognised as a breed in Australia (the International Cat Association got on board in 2007). 

Donskoy cat and woman
Unimpressed donskoy cat
Donskoy cat wearing a pink beanie

Diana Costante's donskoy cats Oleg and Varvara.

“They’re so adorable,” she says. “My kids really hate them. They’re teenagers and they get embarrassed when their friends come over.”

A quick online search of donskoys will reveal why they might be aesthetically divisive. This curious hairless cat was first discovered in Russia in 1987 and has since grown a cult following thanks to its curious looks, soft leathery skin and sweet, dog-like nature. 

Sometimes a breed just grabs you by the heart and donskoys do that for me.

“They get along with every type of animal – dogs, other cats, lizards,” says Diana. “They follow you around the house. They’re very sociable.” 

Oleg was registered for display at the Cat Lovers’ Show, ideal for people who want to learn more about cats as it doesn’t involve competition judging. 

“I’m hopeful they’ll be recognised,” Diana says. “You either love them or you hate them but they’re certainly a unique breed. Sometimes a breed just grabs you by the heart and donskoys do that for me.”

Whether Jean Moir’s dogs win or lose a competition is not about appearances, it’s based on one thing. Actually, make that three things: the trio of sheep that need to be herded into the pen at the other end of the ring. Jean’s four border collies and one kelpie (Sally, Snoopy, Biscuit, Toy and Bosley) are true working dogs, helping herd sheep and cattle on her property in Mirboo North.

“Farmers always say a good dog is worth two workmen. I have to pen them up at night because otherwise they’d be out working the stock. That’s the way they get their jollies in life,” Jean says. 

Elderly woman with brown dog

She is the vice-president and treasurer of the Victorian Working Sheep Dog Association, and has had her share of champions on the sheep-dog trial course. Dogs are generally allowed 13 minutes to navigate their sheep through a series of obstacles while following strict rules (if the dog crosses between sheep and handler, for example, it’s instant disqualification). 

Jean has been trialling dogs for the past 15 years and begins training her dogs at around five or six months of age. There is a distinct moment, she says, when their instincts kick in. “I take them for a walk around the sheep for the instinct to come out. It’s a real moment – you can see the lights go on.”

Melanie Newman’s bichon frise, Dash, is a working dog in a different sense. With his bouffant white hairdo he’d be laughed out of the sheepdog ring, but the cute puffball is a walking advertisement for his owner’s grooming skills.

The lengths people will go to is just amazing, but I really think the animals like being shown.

Melanie is part of another dog show demi-monde. The professional dog groomer competes in competitions around the globe and was crowned the Australian Royal Supreme Grooming Champion in 2013. “I just followed my passion after I started off bathing dogs in my friend’s pet spa,” she says. 

“I love how the owner responds when they pick up their dog. I didn’t even know there were professional grooming competitions until 2004. It just blew me away – it’s a whole different world. I found my place among other like-minded people.” 

Endeavour Hills vet Kerry Bail has seen it all, including “neuticles” – silicon testicular implants to give neutered dogs a bit of extra confidence (rumour has it at least one Kardashian pooch has received these natural-looking baubles). 

“The lengths people will go to is just amazing, but I really think the animals like being shown,” she says. “The ones that don’t like it don’t tolerate it and they probably won’t end up in the ring. 

“Show people just love their pets; they’d go to the ends of the earth for them. It’s a whole other funny world.”