Lee and Bernice Maranto have a thing about cats. They like them. A lot.
"Would you it call a fixation?" Mr. Maranto muses. "I don't know what you'd call it. It's like a narcotic with us. I'm a feline drunk."
At one point, the Marantos shared their small brick rancher in Catonsville with eight cats. They're down to five now, a small brood by the cat-crazed standards of the Maryland Feline Society.
The Marantos, both 60, are avid members of the society, a group of about 100 cat-lovers who take their pets seriously. They get together every third Wednesday in the basement of the Bradford Federal Savings and Loan building in Towson to talk about cats.
Guest speakers lecture on grooming, breed characteristics or veterinary care. Members crow about their latesttriumphs on the cat-show circuit or successful efforts to rescue strays and place them in good homes.
The club also publishes 12 issues of a newsletter called Cat Chat, sponsors an annual household-cat show and distributes literature at malls and animal shelters about cat care and treatment.
They urge new cat owners to spay or neuter their pets, keep them indoors and take them to the vet for checkups and shots. They also condemn declawing as cruel and unnecessary.
Most members own at least six or seven cats, says the club's jTC president, Trish Merryman. Plenty of people have more than that.
Doris Hall, a 61-year-old Linthicum woman, lives with 26 cats and one dog.
"I'm at my maximum now," says Miss Hall, who refers to her pets as "Hall's Fabulous Felines." The dog, a Lhasaapso, doesn't mind being lumped in with the cats.
"He thinks he's a cat," she says. "He barks, but he doesn't know he's a dog. And we don't tell him."
Miss Hall's life revolves around cats. She's active on the show circuit and devotes a lot of time to rescuing strays. She won't give a cat to anyone until she's investigated his or her background.
"One lady said: 'I could adopt a baby quicker than I can get a cat from you, Doris,' " Miss Hall says proudly.
She views her own cats as surrogate children, giving each attention and care. She goes through cases of food each month and spends a small fortune at the vet. But she bristles at estimating how much her cats cost.
"I don't care how much I spend," Miss Hall says. "That doesn't matter." She figures the cats actually save her money in the winter by curling up with her in bed, allowing her to turn down the heat. As many as 15 feline bed warmers surround her at night.
"You don't need a blanket in the winter," she observes.
Miss Hall can't remember a time when she didn't own cats. The Marantos, on the other hand, developed their passion for cats relatively late in life.
They always considered themselves dog people, says Mr. Maranto, a retired heavy-equipment operator. Then they met Frostie on a frigid January day in 1974.
The white-and-blue tomcat was sitting in a driveway across the street when Mr. Maranto first noticed him. He looked cold and hungry. The Marantos wound up feeding him and let him stay in the house overnight. He bolted next morning when a friend rang the doorbell and startled him. But he came back a few days later and moved in.
"He was 17 pounds of love," says Mrs. Maranto, holding an 8-by-10 photo of the cat, who died in 1985. The photo sits on a small hutch in their dining room, while the trophies Frostie won in shows of household pets line the wall of their den.
Mr. Maranto brings out a small photo album and flips through pictures of all 10 of the cats they've owned, telling stories about ,, each one. They got Venus, a Maine coon with a luxurious coat, to keep Frostie company.
A parade of other cats followed -- purebreds and strays, longhairs and shorthairs, big and small. Together, they won hundreds of ribbons and rosettes, which cover every inch of wall space in the Marantos' basement. While Mr. Maranto talks, his wife dangles a long string with a little bow on the end in front of a fat gray tabby named Cory and a pure white shorthair named Ti. The cats swipe at the toy or clamber up the floor-to-ceiling cat tree that dominates the living room.
Bonnie, at 14 the senior member of the household, naps in a carpeted tube tucked underneath a dining room chair. The Marantos' two other cats, 11-year-old Tammy and 12-year-old Brandy, are too timid to venture into the living room.
The Marantos could talk about their cats for hours. Each one has its own personality and quirks. Each one represents a different challenge.
"You've got to earn the respect of a cat," says Mrs. Maranto.
If it weren't for their advancing age and deteriorating health, the Marantos would be tempted to get more cats as their older ones die. But the time has come, Mr. Maranto says, to get their feline addiction under control.
That's why the youngest cat is called Ti, Mrs. Maranto explains. His name is short for That's It.