From right, Stephany Davidson, Kimberly Berry and Christine Carey bring cats in to the Chilliwack SPCA on Aug. 8, 2019. The cats were some of 136 surrendered from a cat hoarder in Maple Ridge. (Jenna Hauck/ The Progress)

Hoarding cats often a mental health issue: Chilliwack SPCA

Chilliwack SPCA explains why they don't remove all animals in one go from a cat hoarding situation

A months-long SPCA animal intake, which included the surrender of more than 130 cats from a 600-square-foot house, has finally been closed.

The situation was directly related to mental health issues, said Chloé MacBeth, branch manager at the Chilliwack SPCA, which took in some of the cats, along with Maple Ridge and Surrey shelters.

“Most of our files it’s a mental health gap. It’s support for the humans that are failing and, as a result, the animals are suffering,” MacBeth said.

In April, the SPCA was dispatched to a small, one-bedroom home in Maple Ridge where complaints had come in from neighbours.

“What neighbours started to notice was the smell. The landlord himself noticed the smell, but just though it was normal for a couple of cats,” said Christine Carey, one of the SPCA animal protection officers on scene.

But, unbeknownst to the landlord, the tenant didn’t have just a couple of cats. She had well over 100 – all of them indoor cats.

The home was filthy, according to Carey. There weren’t enough litter boxes and there was cat feces everywhere – cats were stepping in it and sleeping in it. There wasn’t adequate food or water. There were even dead cats and kittens in the home, according to the SPCA report.

“Disgusting” is how MacBeth and Carey both described the home.

The house also had “dangerously high” ammonia levels, Carey added.

The place, declared uninhabitable, was considered a hazmat situation because ammonia levels were so high. Full hazmat suits and respiratory equipment were required to enter the home.

The SPCA took in 136 cats between April and October to the Chilliwack, Maple Ridge and Surrey shelters. Three cats later had litters of kittens while in foster care, for an estimated total of 150 cats from one cat hoarder.

As sad as the situation is, it’s far from uncommon. According to MacBeth, all of their large-scale animal intakes are directly linked to people with mental health issues.

The owners are well intentioned, but “it’s so easy for it to get out of control,” she said. “They want to save them all then they can’t afford to spay or neuter one, and then all of a sudden it’s a much bigger problem.”

The home in Maple Ridge started three years ago with just three cats. When the SPCA first visited there in April, there were more than 100 cats. Over the course of about six months, they slowly removed groups of about 10 to 20 cats each visit. It seemed like a never-ending problem as pregnant cats were giving birth to litters of kittens at the hoarder’s home throughout the surrender.

In large-scale animal intakes like this, people often wonder why the SPCA doesn’t simply remove all of the cats and be done with it. Why take a dozen cats at a time gradually over six months?

First, they don’t have the resources or kennel space.

“If we just take them all in, we’re no better than the hoarders themselves… we’re not providing them with that standard of care,” MacBeth said.

Second, removing all of the pets from a cat hoarder’s home will be a shock to the owner. By gradually removing the animals, the SPCA can show the owner the benefits of having just a few cats – that it’s manageable and healthier for both the owner and pets.

Third, the SPCA has to take into consideration local veterinarians who assist them.

“If we all of a sudden have 28 cats that all need medical care, who does it? We rely on our community veterinarians to clear their schedules basically,” MacBeth said.

The SPCA gathers as much information as possible from the home so they learn, for example, what type of litter the cats were using and what food they were eating, which helps the shelters.

Each cat undergoes a medical exam, including vaccinations and spay/neuter. Then there’s “major behavioural work” on top of all of the medical issues, MacBeth said.

The cats are stressed and in a new environment with unfamiliar people and smells. The SPCA’s behaviour modification system sees that the cats are housed together in a room where there’s music playing, calming pheromones and hiding places in each kennel. Volunteers and staff come in regularly to socialize with the animals and introduce them to new faces and scents.

It can take weeks or even months for a cat from a large-scale intake to be suitable for adoption. Dozens of cats from this surrender were taken into the Chilliwack branch and have since all been adopted.

READ MORE: See a video of one of the cats surrendered from this intake

The SPCA deals with several large-scale animal intakes every year, but what they don’t see as often are positive end results, like in this case. One reason for its success is the SPCA has recently been collaborating more with the RCMP and Fraser Health to identify people at risk. The other reason is the gradual intake of the surrendered animals.

Back at the Maple Ridge house, the woman now has six cats, all of which have been spayed or neutered. Her file was closed in October, and the SPCA did not press charges because she was so compliant.

They have been back numerous times to check on her and each time, it’s been a “very positive interaction,” MacBeth said.

This is exactly the type of end result the SPCA wants to see.

“We’ve been consulting with hoarding experts, and the way this file was done is actually best practice in terms of recidivism,” MacBeth said, adding that slow intakes on cases like this are the way to go.

“It’s not a shock to their system in terms of all of a sudden they go from 150 to none. They realize the benefits of having fewer and fewer animals and that compulsion to get more isn’t there.”

“It’s easy for people to become overwhelmed. We are here to help,” MacBeth said. “We want to keep animals and their humans together.”

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