WHEN Lorcan Dillon uttered the words 'I love you', for the first time, his mother Jayne was understandably elated.
"I was so moved, but I had to hold myself in check," she says. "No matter how excited I felt, I didn't want him to realise just how important it was for me to hear those precious words."
But this seven-year-old boy's first declaration of love wasn't directed at his devoted mother.
Instead, it was aimed at the family cat — a loveable ball of fluff named Jessi-Cat.
Lorcan, at the time, was a lonely little boy trapped in world of silence by a condition called selective mutism, which left him unable to talk or express emotion.
But, after forging an extraordinary bond with his two-year-old cream Birman, this slight, sandy-haired child has spoken for the first time.
This inspiring story meant the pair won first prize at the Cat's Protection Awards at London's Savoy hotel last month.
And a moving video of the pair playing together made by the charity had more than 115,000 views on YouTube.
And Jessi-Cat is loving every minute of her fame.
Former midwife Jayne, 44, says: "Most cats would run and hide around strangers.
"But even when the TV crews were here, Jessi-Cat adored the attention.
"She seemed to understand her role was to stay by Lorcan's side. When he played with his model soldiers, she even put out a paw and pushed one over for the cameras.
"This cat has an extraordinary sense of duty. She cannot bear not knowing what Lorcan is doing, and if she hears him laugh, she'll come and find out what's going on.
"The other day, I found Lorcan reading to her. Her paw was resting on his hand, while her blue eyes were just gazing into his face in adoration.
"Every night, she sleeps beside his bed and when he comes home from school, he runs to scoop her up and hug her," says Jayne.
"This cat is the only living thing that Lorcan can talk to without hesitation. She is not there to judge him — she is just there to listen."
Lorcan was born in September 2004. Jayne, from Manchester and husband David, 48, a GP, already had a four-year-old son, Luke.
Lorcan was a healthy baby who cried lustily but, as a toddler, he would fall silent if other people entered the house.
Jayne says: "When Lorcan was three, his grandma came to babysit with another little cousin. Lorcan didn't say a word to them all day.
"I can also recall going into a shop, and Lorcan skipping in happily. Then, the shopkeeper said hello to him, and he hid under the counter. At home, he chatted away happily, so I assumed it was shyness."
But when he started nursery at four, staff began to notice problems.
"He was a happy child who played with others, but he couldn't communicate with them," says Jayne.
"While other children babbled away and laughed, Lorcan stayed completely silent.
"He would look at nursery staff and flash them a smile, but he would not talk to them.
"We took Lorcan to see the doctor and after many tests, he was diagnosed with selective mutism."
This disorder, affecting around one in 1000 children, is a nervous condition caused by stress. The sufferer can often speak in their home environment, but finds it hard to communicate outside. In Lorcan's case, he struggled to display emotion to his loving mother.
"It is heartbreaking," says Jayne.
"This isn't a case of a shy child. Lorcan can dance down the aisle of a supermarket and won't mind that people are watching. But he cannot bring himself to talk. He is trapped in a world of silence.
"It was terribly hard to walk down the road and see other children beside their parents, chatting happily.
"I know that Lorcan loves me — but he can't bring himself to say those words to me. He doesn't even like cuddles.
"When he started school at five, the staff followed a programme set by speech therapists to encourage him to make any sound at all.
"They have been incredibly supportive — and I do know many children get better —but the future still frightens me.
"I worry about him hurting himself or falling ill and not being able to tell the staff at school," she says.
"He won't even cry. Some children with selective mutism have been known to break their legs — and stay silent despite the pain. The thought of that happening is terrifying."
By the time he was five, Lorcan was a lonely boy with no way of making friends his own age. Then came the arrival of Jessi-Cat.
Jayne says: "I wanted him to have someone he could talk to who might help him to relax and speak, so I found Jessi-Cat from a breeder.
"When she met Lorcan, she seemed fascinated by him. He would scoop her up and squeeze her in bear-hugs, and she would just purr.
"Then, something magical happened. After a few months, I heard him talking to her. She would tilt her head and meow in reply."
And Lorcan's breakthrough with Jessi-cat allowed him to express his emotions to others.
"He made a friend and began to talk to him - and over the past few months, he's been able to speak to his teacher.
"Then came the news that he had read a few sentences in class. It was a fantastic breakthrough.
"But the icing on the cake was when I recently heard Lorcan turn to Jessi-Cat and say "I love you". It was incredible to hear him utter those words for the first time."
Jayne adds: "I know cats are meant to have a sixth sense, but it is as if this cat understood from day one that Lorcan was vulnerable."
Two months ago, Jayne nominated Jessi-Cat for the high-profile Cats Protection Awards. She says: "I saw an online tweet to say they wanted to hear about extraordinary cats, and I quickly typed a few lines about what Jessi-Cat meant to Lorcan.
"I was stunned when they called me," she says. The whole family went to the ceremony where Lorcan — and Jessi-Cat — won Cat of the Year and the Best Friends award.
Jayne says: "Lorcan was so proud of Jessi-Cat that he stepped on to the podium to take the award with no hint of nerves.
"And, when we got home, he hugged Jessi-Cat and told her she had won. To me, hearing him talk was like winning all over again."
* Source: DAILYMAIL.CO.UK