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Animal hoarding in Thief River Falls prompts questions about why people do it

Earlier this month, officials in Thief River Falls recovered 51 cats from a small house. Before that officials in Crookston recovered more than 60 cats from a house.

What's behind hoarding?

An expert says it could be a mental disorder and an unmet emotional need. Hoarders never intend to hoard, says the head of one animal shelter.

"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."

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 Humane Society staff members, donning respirators, removed 51 cats from a small house that reeked of cat feces. The house was condemned.

The Polk County Humane Society is having a half-price sale on cats, while the Pennington County Humane Society is offering its cats for a donation of any amount.

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."

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 between each other.

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 take 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?"

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