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Animal hoarding: When compassion turns to chaos

"I don't think anybody intentionally wants to be a hoarder. I think they think they're providing a home," said Tracey Janisch, manager of the Humane Society of Polk County shelter in Crookston.

She helped remove more than 60 cats from a house recently, she said. "And there's still more," she said.

It's the biggest example of animal hoarding she's seen since she joined the shelter in 2008.

"Animal hoarding is different because there's an emotional attachment," said psychologist Denise Gudvangen. "Animals meet an emotional need that hoarders did not get with human relationships."

Gudvangen, the coordinator of adult community services at Northwestern Mental Health Center in Crookston, provides mental health services in her clients' homes.

Animal hoarders, she said, are typically diagnosed with a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder or attachment disorder or even a psychotic disorder. Breaking down those barriers is slow and difficult, she said, but "progress is definitely possible, depending on the amount of insight the person has and their realization that there is a problem."

Cases of animal hoarding pop up here and there in the region, sometimes involving surprising numbers of animals. The most recent case emerged earlier this month in Thief River Falls, where Pennington County Hu mane Society staff, donning respirators, removed 51 cats from a small house that reeked of cat feces. The house was condemned.

In July, F-M animal welfare group Minn-Kota PAAWS rescued 19 cats from a condemned north Fargo house. Though he was left homeless, the occupant of the condemned home, Lee Seley, was most concerned with where his cats would end up, said Carol Stefonek of PAAWS.

Multiplying problem

Although their intentions may be good, people can get into trouble very easily, Janisch said. "They think, 'OK, we're going to have one or two cats,' and they don't get them fixed."

Cats can produce three litters a year, each typically of three to nine kittens, and a kitten can be bred at six months, she said. "You start out with the intention of having three, and within a year, you have 70."

It's not just cats, she said. "You can get into this with any type of animal," she said.

The biggest problem is the health hazard, Gudvangen said, when conditions in the home deteriorate to dangerous levels.

She cited a house where "literally, we're talking piles of feces; there were that many cats. There's no way they can all be trained." The homeowner couldn't afford all the litter boxes needed, and the cats relieved themselves wherever, she said.

These conditions can impact breathing, she said, and the animals can also pass diseases.

She said she knows a doctor who refused to operate on a patient because "there was no way that the patient could keep the (surgical) stitches clean once the patient had gone home."

Treating such patients takes time, said Gudvangen. "It's very easy for health providers to feel overwhelmed, even as somebody outside of it, so you can imagine how it is for the people living in it," she said.

"Many people do realize that hoarding is irrational and out of control," she said, "but some don't get to that point."

Pamela Knudson writes for the Grand Forks Herald