Archive for the ‘Shelter Medicine’ Category

Animal Hoarding: Too Much of a Good Thing

Monday, July 19th, 2010

My full time job at Penn Vet is a focus on animals in shelters, and some of the very unusual circumstances that send them there. One of the most fascinating is the world of animal hoarding.  Those of you in the Philadelphia area know that within the past week, several remarkable examples of animal hoarding made the news.  Animal hoarding is a shelter medicine subject because once the household is discovered, there is usually a need to rapidly remove the animals and to provide triage, medical assessment, and hopefully–rehabilitative care for those pets that can be saved.  Locally, Penn Vet has been helping to plan a full-day symposium for social workers, mental heathcare, elder care, child welfare, and animal welfare professionals on the subject of animal hoarding and hoarding intervention resources.  Because of the numbers of animals involved in some of these cases (not to mention the range of species that can be encountered), these could easily overwhelm a single agency.  A large intervention in rural Pennsylvania last month netted just under 400 cats from one sanctuary–there is no way that would have ended well for the cats without huge investments of human, infrastructural, and dollar resources.  In that instance, the ASPCA, American Humane Association, local humane society, and Penn Vet collaborated to safely remove, examine, test, temporarily shelter, and ultimately adopt out the vast majority of the cats.

For those of us learning about animal hoarding from the veterinary or animal sheltering side of the equation, I confess that there is often no understanding of the mental health challenges which result in a hoarding personality disorder, and there is often little or no sympathy for the human perpetrators.  Often, there is anger and a lot of talk about what punishment should be meted out, not much talk about how to integrate a mental health intervention into the plan. But to live in abjectly squalid, filthy conditions and to profess love and care for the animals dying and dead all around you, is pretty compelling evidence of a mental health deficit.  And those of us centered in the animal care arena of often constitutionally ill-equipped to muster sympathy for people who willingly or not, harm animals.

But punishment isn’t a great protector of animals in this case;  punishment alone will be limted to fines and prohibitions against animal ownership.  The fines are largely uncollectable (these are often destitute individuals with no attachable assets, and prohibitions against pet acquisition are easily circumvented.   Recidivism is nearly 100%, if other measures aren’t taken. Think about it–the most powerful source of comfort and identity for these troubled people is their pets (I know, I know–they’re not living up to their end of the care equation), and a judge is ruling that they may not own pets.  A more successful approach has been used by Anne Irwin of the Bucks County SPCA where they’ve negotiated a number of pets that can be reasonably well-maintained by the individual, and make sure that the pets are appropriated spayed or castrated, in a state of health that is stable and not unduly burdensome, and then maintain a connection over time with them to make sure they have access to resources that are vital (pet food, a source of ongoing veterinary support).  This approach has allowed a number of hoarding interventions to resolve with very positive outcomes, all around.

Next week, several hundred (registration is limited to 300, and we’re bumping against the 200 level right now) professionals will be learning about the problem and also exploring the intervention strategies and resources available for animal hoarding.  I am excited to know that so many are interested and might be recruited to help make the solution more effective, to have far more positive resolutions in the future.

Community Cats

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

L to R: M. Moyer, Cynda Crawford, Julie Levy at UF CatNip, Jan 2010

I’ve been involved with feral cat issues in Pennsylvania since 2003, when (as I began ascending the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association’s chairs of office) I initiated “Feral Cat Summits”. All stakeholders to that issue were invited by the PVMA to discuss, debate, and argue the merits and deficiencies of Trap Neuter Return work. For those of you unfamiliar with feral cats, now more properly dubbed “Community Cats”, there are believed to be as many free-roaming cats as there may be pet cats in the United States. That’s a lot of cats. While that sounds unlikely, bear in mind that “domestic” cats have enjoyed a rather free-roaming relationship with humans for thousands of years, and this phenomenon of strictly indoor cats is an entirely man-made construct. These cats can be owned cats, stray cats, abandoned cats, or cats that were born outside, are poorly socialized with people (“feral”), and will spend their entire lives outside.

Enter—TNR. Trap Neuter Return. Very highly motivated, dedicated volunteers Trap, temporarily house the cats until they are surgically Neuter-ed, and then Return-ed them to their original site. They are not creating outdoor cats; they are merely interrupting their reproductive cycle-permanently. They are not “dumping” cats-these cats were there to begin with, and without intervention, would be producing kittens each year. These kittens face very high mortality and a rough first year; those that survive will begin reproducing as early as August or September of the year they were born (typically February/March/April). Despite claims to the contrary, many of these outdoor cats, once past the high risk of kitten hood, can live long, stable, comfortable lives, with overall health, parasitism, and infectious disease issues comparable to indoor/outdoor pet cats.

I describe myself as a reluctant proponent of TNR. Reluctant, because it is unsatisfying to release a cat to its own devices post-operatively. Yes, it is now vaccinated, yes, she won’t reproduce, but still, it isn’t the life I’d want for my cats. The alternatives, unfortunately, are very limited. When I discuss this with my Penn Vet students, I mention the alternatives as 1) Ignore Community Cats or 2) Trap and Euthanize, which is what happens in shelters that accept Community Cats/Feral Cats but do not have a TNR program to release them. Presently, there are no effective non-surgical methods of controlling cat reproduction. So, after years of leading discussions, listening to the back and forth, seeing the TNR clinics in action, and talking with some of the best minds on this subject (Julie Levy of University of Florida, for example), I have moved over to the proponent side of the fence.

This is an incredibly complicated problem, and even the success stories of TNR (Ocean Reef Club, Merrimack River) were successes with a lot of sustained effort. I can tell you that the extermination/euthanasia approach is extraordinarily expensive, does not attract a large volunteer base to sustain it, does not attract private humane philanthropy to support it, and does not invoke warm and fuzzy public relations with members of your community (upwards of 25 to 35% of community members report themselves as feeding outside cats on some sort of basis).

I’ve provided a sampling of links; I particularly love this vague, un-helpful sentiment (in the third link):

We recommend that advocates of cat colonies seek a long-term solution to the pet overpopulation issue by redirecting their efforts toward the underlying problem of managing irresponsible pet owners.

Of the three options extant, 1) TNR, 2) Ignore, 3) Trap and Euthanize, I’ll let you decide which option they’re rooting for. For my part, I’m siding with the option that gives these cats a chance-TNR.

Operation Catnip

Merrimack River Feline Rescue Society

Natural Areas Journal – Trap/Neuter/Release Methods Ineffective in Controlling Domestic Cat “Colonies” on Public Lands

Daily Record Article – Animal groups: Could ruling lead to hunters shooting cats?