The tension was so thick at Britain's Supreme Cat Show on Sunday you could hear it in the air ... "ZZZZZZZZZZ."
Everywhere you turned, there were cats doing what cats do best. Sleeping. Some were tucked up in their own beds with downy duvets and embroidered pillows. Big-time action here was the stretch of a paw. Usually in the direction of food. The cats had toys, music, mini-fans to keep them cool and mirrors to remind them of how gorgeous they were. Everything a show cat might need except an alarm clock.
In this sense, cat shows are strikingly different from dog shows or pony shows. Firstly, the contestants don't actually have to do anything. Secondly, all cats know that they are born winners.
But the biggest difference was the owners. Besotted hardly does it justice. Stand by any cage for more than a few seconds and a woman in flat shoes and a cardigan will appear from the crowd to explain the cat's remarkable qualities. Its glossy coat, its gleaming eyes, its perfect proportions, its unique personality, its evident fitness. Then you look at the cat.
The Supreme Show, held at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, is the cat world's answer to Crufts and anybody who really considers themselves a cat fancier has to be here. Now in its 32nd year, it is the biggest cat show in Europe – a kind of gathering of the mognoscenti.
Here are not only the flagship breeds – Persians, Abyssinians, Burmese – but the cats you hardly knew existed, the Snowshoes and the sphinxes. And, in a corner of the hall quietly sniffed at by the pedigree brigade, the dear old household cats of the kind that raid your dustbin.
And then there's Frankencat. The kind with no fur and ears the size of hand-gliders. The cat world hierarchy publicly discourages extreme breeding characteristics, but the boundaries are constantly being pushed.
As are the limits of pampering. Jennifer Sedgewick's seven-month-old Russian White, Catwo Dmitri, was slumbering in a cage of neo-tsarist splendour hung with black and gold awnings and a litter tray that looked to be filled with crushed diamonds. "This is a serious cat," said Mrs Sedgewick, from Leominster, Herefordshire. "Lifestyle is important to a cat like this. Wealth and taste matter. He likes caviar and smoked salmon. He's been scared stiff by the credit crunch."
You can't buy the judges, though. Not that people haven't tried. Rumours of skulduggery and dirty tricks are rife among the cat show crowd. There are tales of cats being nobbled or given illegal treatments, such as fur colourants and muscle toners. Smart owners keep their cats' feed trays at the back of the cage to thwart dopers and poisoners.
"You hear these things," says Sandra Wagstaff, of Telford, Shropshire, owner of a champion Burmese called Springmeadow Rebel, "but the thing is that a cat's best qualities are natural ones. You want a good appearance, but a good temperament too. A cat's a cat, really, and, at its best, it should be doing all those things cats like, such as playing and taking over your home."
There's a popular saying among cat lovers: dogs have owners, cats have staff. It speaks to a spirit of superiority and independence that should, by rights, make cats unsuitable for showing in the first place.
Yet the animals have been exhibited for as long as people have worshipped them. Literally in the case of the ancient Egyptians, who paraded cats for the favour of the pharaohs and, after their deaths, mummified them and placed them in elaborate tombs. The Romans brought the cat cult to Europe and the first record of domestic cats in Britain dates from the first century.
At first, the creatures were cherished here, but their luck ran out in the middle ages, when cats became associated with witchcraft and wickedness and thousands were burned to death with their owners.
The first cat show was held in 1871 at Crystal Palace and, ever since, cats have been Britain's most popular pet.
All this could, of course, change again. The anxious murmur at Sunday's show was that bad economic times would be even worse for cats. Which at least offered something the contestants needed. A wake-up call.