Photo by Dr. Teri Ann Oursler
Rocky, the cat referred to as "B4" during the seizure, ended up living with Dr. Oursler after her son glommed onto the Siamese-cross white cat.
If there is a suspicion of animal abuse, the only authority in Wyoming who can get the wheels turning is a veterinarian. If a law enforcement officer believes there is abuse, he has to call in a veterinarian before anything can be done. I’ve had a couple of those calls. They are never pleasant.
In July, 2010, a sheriff’s deputy asked if I would accompany him to a house in the country. They had an anonymous tip that there were over 20 cats being kept in a small house, and they were worried about the cats’ welfare. Off we went on a blazing hot July afternoon.
I was surprised when the woman at the door turned out to be one of my clients! Needless to say, she did not want to let us in. But after we explained that we were worried about the cats, she let us in and agreed to show me around so I could see how the cats were doing. She’d only brought about four cats to the clinic. I had no idea she was a hoarder. She’d been in with one just a few months before.
The temperature that afternoon hovered around 100°F and the smell of the small house was indescribable. Poop on top of the piano, urine, dirty dishes, rotting food on the floor and countertops… flies everywhere!
She took me into a bedroom. There were about 25 cats in there with one or two overflowing litter boxes and a mattress on the floor for the cats to sleep on. There was food and water, and surprisingly the cats were not thin, although many had runny eyes and noses. The stench was making my nose and eyes run as well. Thankfully, that was the end of my work that day, as I agreed that the cats and the people were not living in safe conditions. That was what the local law enforcement needed from me: the verification that the cats were in a dangerous situation. They moved on with the case. I moved on home to take a mid-day shower!
Eventually I was contacted by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) as they were willing to bring a team out to the house to help relocate the cats. They asked me to be their lead veterinarian for the case. Over the next two weeks I put together a list of things I thought I might need when going in to assess the animals. A date was finally set, and my staff and I assembled our equipment to join the sheriff’s deputies and HSUS staff to remove the cats.
I met law enforcement and HSUS personnel at the fairgrounds where HSUS personnel had set up a temporary shelter. They had wire cages, cat litter, litter pans, dishes, food, etc. - everything you could want in a shelter. They had a huge air-conditioned truck in which crates could be stacked during transport.
We left in a convoy of approximately 10 vehicles, driving past the high school as the kids were heading in for the day. It was surreal, as was the huge field of yellow sunflowers across the street. They were so pretty in the early morning sunshine.
Even though we had a search warrant and a legal right to be there, it was important to all of us that the three people be treated gently and with respect. Before the owner finally agreed to let us take the cats, she and the deputy talked for a long time, and I intervened between them when it became a heated discussion. The county attorney had paid to have a local psychologist on site so the cat owners would have someone to talk to, but they would only talk to me. It took a while, but we finally convinced them that removing the cats was best for everyone involved, most importantly for them.
Meanwhile, the HSUS people were outside putting carriers together with zip ties and setting up mobile awnings so we would have shade to work in. I remember being so impressed with the idea of using zip ties to put carriers together – so much faster than all of those little screws and nuts I dealt with on a daily basis!
The cat wrangling skills of the HSUS personnel was something to behold. People who work with cats know that staying calm is the key to handling them, especially if you have multiple cats. Cats feed on the energy created by chaos, both by upset cats and upset people. It only takes one screaming, hissing cat to upset all the remaining cats, and it turns into a vicious cycle. So the ability to catch these cats and get them into carriers without them getting upset was important. They started with the cats that were easily handled. If a cat could not be caught easily and quickly, there was no pursuit. That cat was left for later retrieval, after all of the easy-to-catch cats were outside.
People started coming out of the house lugging carriers, with one cat per carrier, to the staging area. Only one kitten came out looking pretty ill with an upper respiratory infection, but he was easily cleaned up and moved into the air conditioned truck. Each cat was assigned a number based on where it was found in the house; each room was designated with a letter. So cat B4 was the fourth cat to come out of room B. The cat’s paperwork was tied to his carrier. This paperwork stayed with the cat, even when it was shipped out to a new shelter.
My day was spent moving back and forth between the house and the triage area as well as talking with the owners. I repeatedly trudged out in the heat to where the owners were sitting together on a swing in the shade. They repeatedly refused to speak with the psychologist. They kept telling me that they trusted me and my judgment and that they appreciated my being there. I am still humbled by their trust in me while I helped to remove all of those cats. I had known these women a long time and it made me sad to see them in this situation, living in filth and trying to care for all of those cats. They did not set out on this path; they never intended harm. They had accumulated cats that needed homes. They thought they were saving cats. Sadly, since the cats kept multiplying, it was not long before this all got away from them.
We removed 156 cats that day, working from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the terrible heat in a small, stinky house. We then moved them to the temporary shelter where each cat was put in an individual cage with food, water, and litter. I was shocked at how many cats there were and shocked that the HSUS had enough carriers. They told me that they had taken my estimate of 50 (I doubled from the 25 I saw on the first visit) and multiplied by 4. They expected to remove 200 cats based on my estimate! They said everyone underestimates the total and mine was a lot closer than most.
I had asked several of my local colleagues to help to evaluate the cats the next day. During the day, the HSUS personnel brought us 13 more cats from the property. A team of six vets, each with an assistant or technician, started triaging all the cats. I am so lucky that my colleagues were able to spend the time helping, as I could not have triaged 169 cats in one day! A couple of the cats were in bad shape and needed to be put to sleep right away, but it was amazing how much better the cats looked after a night of breathing clean air. Eventually we euthanized 17 cats as either too sick or too wild to be adopted. This was less loss than both I and the HSUS had expected, based on the average hoarding case.
All of the cats who were deemed adoptable were vaccinated and micro-chipped as well as dewormed. Thankfully, living in Wyoming has a huge bonus – we don’t have fleas!
Over the next couple of days, as the cats' health continued to improve, the HSUS found shelters across the west that were able to take a huge influx of cats. We shipped out all but six cats and 15 kittens. The kittens were too young to be shipped anywhere. One cat was very old and eventually died, clean and well taken care of, at the Powell shelter (after I pulled all of her rotting teeth). The mama cats and their kittens were all adopted out of our local shelter as well.
As for the three people living in the house, they were fined in court and told they could not have any cats at all for five years. Sadly, the rate of recidivism is close to 100% for these cases, even when the people get psychological help. This is a poorly understood disease, and a disease it is.
I ended up taking home one 4-month old kitten. B4 came home to live with us because my son fell in love with Rocky and begged me to rescue him. I have to admit, it worried me to bring another cat home because I could see myself in the same situation, with too many cats.
As clinic owner, I had more resources than the average person for taking care of cats. At one point in my career, due to a litter of kittens too young to be at the shelter, I had 17 cats living in my clinic. It was too many! Staff helped and cleaned and fed, and then cleaned some more as I could not have adequately cared for that many cats on my own. That was my wake up call, and my 12 permanent clinic cats eventually whittled down to 7 as they died and I quit adopting.
I no longer work in the clinic, but I still pay the food and cat litter bills on the three remaining clinic cats - taking them was part of my lease agreement to the new veterinarian - and I have four cats at home. My food bills are staggering for seven cats (don’t tell my husband!) While in practice, I didn’t realize how much money was spent on all of my cats, since their care was just wrapped into daily business expenses.
So, how many cats is too many?
- If you cannot afford to keep all of the cats in clean litter, with clean food, you have too many.
- If you cannot afford to feed yourself decent food because you are buying cat food, you have too many.
- If you could spend 24 hours a day cleaning your house and still could not keep up, you have too many.
- If you cannot afford minimal vet care (spay/neuter and vaccinate) for all of your cats, you have too many.
If you or someone you love has too many cats or dogs, call your local animal control and ask for help. No one wins when there are too many animals in one home, not the people and certainly not the animals.
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VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.