Pets and Pathology

Keeping too many animals can lead to situations both dangerous and disgusting

From the outside, it was just another unremarkable home in a quiet eastside neighborhood. But on the inside, it was a reeking shop of horrors.

Barbara Crummitt and Karen Wood remember the April day when they stumbled across that fact. As part of Tucson's large, loose-knit community of animal rescuers, they'd arrived expecting to help an acquaintance with a few more cats than she could care for. What they found was a frantic hoarder.

The result was a cleanup operation that continues to this day.

Chair legs were stuck to the floor, encased in shin-deep cat dung. Feces filled the tracks of a sliding glass door, and the front door wouldn't budge. Thick ammonia forced people into air masks.

They also needed to shelter some 40 cats—a daunting feat even for these seasoned animal rescuers. It took five days to catch all of the felines, many of which needed immediate medical care.

"When we first got the call, I thought we were just helping to thin the cats out and move some to another place," says Crummitt. "But when we got there and found out what was really happening, we were in a jam."

Officers from the Pima Animal Care Center were on hand, says Crummitt. So were inspectors from the city's Housing and Community Development Department, who demanded that all the animals be removed. The house was very nearly condemned.

Due to the sensitivity of this case, Crummitt and Wood declined to provide the hoarder's identity.

Wood says this situation topped anything she's seen on television shows about hoarders. "When we were cleaning, I was terrified that I was going to slip and fall in that stuff. And all the cats smelled like (feces)."

Now they're trying to get the woman help—and that's proving to be a challenge, says Crummitt. "I've made a lot of calls (to social-service agencies). But they say that unless she's a threat to herself, there's really nothing available to her."

Traditionally, animal hoarding has been viewed more as an eccentric quirk than a disturbing pathology. But that attitude is shifting, with growing awareness of its links to mental illness. This behavior also inflicts horrid suffering upon pets; it's not unusual to find dead animals in hoarders' homes. Dogs rescued from one hoarder near Houston were so neglected that their toenails had grown under their paws, nearly crippling them. They were covered in excrement and urine.

Researchers estimate that up to 7,000 hoarding cases occur each year. According to a study in the late 1990s by Tufts University's Center for Animals and Public Policy, the average number of animals kept by a single hoarder was 39, though it was not uncommon for authorities to discover more than 100 animals in a single home. Hoarders are three times more likely to be women than men.

What drives this behavior? Psychologists draw links between hoarding and mental-health issues such as personality and attachment disorders. Often times, animals can come to represent security for the hoarders. And even when pets are removed from a home, hoarders tend to repeat the behavior.

They rarely seek out treatment on their own, nor can they be forced into counseling for what's widely considered an obsessive-compulsive disorder, according to Laura Waterman, clinical director of the Southern Arizona Mental Health Corporation. "We're called out to determine if the person is dangerous to himself or someone else," she says. "Ninety-nine percent of time, the answer to that is going to be no. We'll talk to the person and try to frame it as something that is perceived by many people as a problem. We'll offer resources, but we certainly can't compel someone" to get help.

These situations become even more delicate when they involve the elderly, who comprise an unusually high percentage of hoarding cases. "It can happen at any age," says Sandy Davenport, a caregiver specialist with the Pima Council on Aging. "But there are a lot of seniors who are dealing with this."

Seniors bring with them a special set of hurdles, such as difficulty in maintaining a clean, healthy home. "Sometimes there's also an issue of dementia," Davenport says. "A lot of times, there's the feeling that, if they give up some of the items they've been collecting, they feel extreme anxiety that something awful is going to happen. They can be at risk for a mental-health crisis."

Still, young or old, it's not always so easy to even distinguish between serious hoarders and people who simply like lots of pets. "What exactly is a hoarder?" asks Jayne Cundy, a spokeswoman for the Pima Animal Care Center. "I'm sure there are definitions for it, but we get so many multiple-animal situations, some of which may not necessarily be hoarding, and some which may come into that category.

"Each case is different," she says. "For example, we could get a call about somebody with multiple animals and feces, etcetera. But then we go there, and though there are multiple animals, there's not really a problem. Maybe there's one animal out of 40 that needs vet care.

"Then you walk into the situations where people have multiple animals, and something drastic has happened in their lives—maybe an illness, maybe a bereavement or something—and it's gotten a little bit out of control. I wouldn't necessarily call that person a hoarder."

In those cases, the initial contact often requires a soft touch, Cundy says. "Some of these people are very shy about letting us in. But you can normally get an overview from the outside of the property: Is there debris outside? Is there an odor at the door? If so, we try to work with the people to let us in."

The next step often involves good Samaritans such as Crummitt and Wood, who are now scrambling to raise the $10,000 to $15,000 needed for these cats' immediate medical care. In the meantime, these felines are relishing a new world of fresh air and regular care on Crummitt's screened porch.

"We bought portable evaporative coolers and put up a shade cloth," Wood says as she brushes a fluffy Maine coon cat. "We keep it clean, and they get food and water and fresh litter—which they sure didn't get before."

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