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Nearly 100 dogs rescued: When does 'unsanitary' become cruelty?

The dogs appeared to be in good condition, authorities say, but they had been kept in overcrowded and filthy quarters, raising questions about the definition of animal cruelty.

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Neighbor Greg Bosel carries one of the dogs removed from a Cottrellville Township home Wednesday. Ninety-eight dogs have been removed from a house in Michigan's St. Clair County, where they were found in unsanitary conditions.

Liz Shepard/Times Herald/AP

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Authorities rescued nearly 100 dogs and three cats kept in "inhumane conditions" in a Detroit area home this week, after neighbors complained of a foul odor and loud barking.

The animals appeared to be in good condition when police removed them from the home, although they were covered with feces and urine. The incident raises questions about how animal cruelty is defined, as these animals appeared to have been well fed and cared for aside from the overcrowded and filthy conditions.

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Authorities did remove the dogs from the home and are investigating potential health code violations and possible criminal charges. 

St. Clair County Sheriff Tim Donnellon told CBS Detroit the condition of the home was unlike anything he had every encountered.

“Inhumane conditions,” Sherriff Donnellon said, “they were running free on the first floor of the home – so they weren’t crated, they basically had the whole run of the first level of a small house, where the husband and wife lived upstairs in a bedroom. Now, they were not without food or water but they were covered in feces and urine – they were unsanitary.”

The Humane Society of the United States separates animal abuse cases into four categories: simple/gross neglect, intentional animal abuse and torture, organized abuse (such as cockfighting), and animal sexual abuse.

In recent years, states have strengthened laws preventing cruelty to animals. Prior to 1986, just four states had felony animal cruelty laws. Twenty-five states have enacted felony animal cruelty laws since 2000 alone, and several states have strengthened them since that time.

Today, all fifty states allow for felony charges on the basis of animal cruelty.

Most of the dogs found in Detroit were members of the Norwegian Buhund, Norrbottenspets, and Norwegian Spets breeds, according to the Associated Press. The AP also reports that the couple was breeding, rescuing, and showing the dogs.

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The homeowners initially cooperated with police, handing over 22 dogs when authorities first visited the home on Tuesday.

They also willingly surrendered 23 dogs to a Colorado rescue organization for Norwegian Buhunds and nine dogs to the Humane Society of St.Clair County and six dogs to another shelter.

Yet, efforts to retrieve the remaining dogs met resistance from the couple, who refused to cooperate with police on Wednesday.

"On Wednesday, deputies and the Animal Control officer returned to remove the remaining dogs," said the sheriff's office in a press release. "This time, a search warrant had to be served to enter the home, as the residents refused to cooperate."

In total, 98 dogs and three cats were removed from the home.

"I think somewhere along the line, things got out of control," Donnellon told WJBK-TV.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.