Animals lovers understand the comfort and unconditional love that pets bring into a home.
But that joy can easily turn into misery if there are too many animals living in one place without adequate care.
Four people were recently found guilty in magistrate court case of animal hoarding after Hall County Animal Control received a complaint of animals running loose in a yard. A total of 69 animals — 67 dogs and two guinea pigs — lived on the property and in the double-wide mobile home with the adults.
Most of the dogs have been adopted by other families.
While the case was more extreme than most, Hall County Solicitor General Stephanie Woodard said such instances are not that uncommon. She said such pet owners most often are brought into magistrate court on pet responsibility cases. But in the five years since she took office, she’s worked on half a dozen animal hoarder cases that she calls “significant.”
The county has several ordinances on pet ownership and responsibilities for the sake of public health and safety.
“Hoarding is unique,” Woodard said. “We do have county ordinances that deal with it because of a number of public health issues. It’s very easy with a higher number of pets per capital for a specified home structure or area of land for there to be unhealthy conditions to arise very quickly, for human beings as well as for the animals.”
Woodard said the criminal cases typically begin in magistrate court in an attempt to let hoarders know that what they’re doing isn’t healthy or safe. Pet owners may be fined or required to go on probation where their pet ownership is monitored by animal control officers. They also may have to take educational classes on responsible pet ownership and maintenance.
Depending on the situation and the health of the animals, state misdemeanor charges of animal cruelty also could be filed.
Woodard said the cases begin more as an intervention and escalate from there.
Some animal hoarders may also be referred to mental health care providers for treatment.
“Animal hoarding is often times present with mental health maladies,” Woodard said. “It isn’t always a sign of mental illness. It could just be a temporary depression. Animals are very loving and very accepting, so when people have lost their jobs or their relationships, they may think if one cat feels good then maybe 10 cats will feel great.”
But Woodard said it isn’t the specific number of pets that makes a person a hoarder, rather an inability to differentiate between the animals and meet their needs.
“When we go into those kinds of situations, we normally always see pets that have severe health issues (and) the owner ... can’t see that one of the animals is hurting,” Woodard said. “We almost always find dead cats and dead dogs. We’ve found animals that have been trampled down into the furniture. We’ve found pets in fireplaces, plastic bins. It rises to the level of animal cruelty by the sheer number, where an owner can’t responsibly care for normal physical maladies.”
Officer David Jones, assistant deputy of the Hall County Animal Shelter, said hoarding cases, even the less severe cases, often happen naturally.
Jones said problems seem to begin when a female pet hasn’t been spayed. The number of animals in a home can quickly get out of control if animals are not spayed or neutered and the litters aren’t offered up to other homes.
“By the time they realize this, they’re scrambling to keep up and another litter hits the ground,” Jones said.
Usually, animal control is notified about a problem after a neighbor calls to complain about the number of animals.
Jones said pet owners in out-of-control situations will often surrender the animals they can’t care for and rectify the problem by spaying or neutering their animals.
But some pet owners aren’t able to recognize the harm that neglecting care can cause to animals.
“It’s a mental thing on that level,” Jones said. “When those animals have to be taken care of and when that care is neglected the animals suffer. They block it out. In their minds they’re still trying to take care of the animals as best they can even though it’s apparent that they’ve dropped the ball.”
Not only are the animals at risk for disease and injury but the owners themselves are as well. Mange, rabies and a number of other diseases can be transmitted to humans through animals.
While regular health care is important and shouldn’t be overlooked, Jones said the most important thing pet owners can do to help their pets and themselves is to have the animals spayed and neutered.
“We just can’t stress it enough,” Jones said.