Everyone is familiar with the popular stereotype of an elderly “cat lady” who has far too many pets. However, many don’t realize that animal hoarding is a serious psychological condition with no known treatment or cure, which affects thousands of families and millions of animals nationwide, every year. Little is known or understood about the dynamics of animal hoarding or the motivations behind it.

What is animal hoarding?

Animal hoarding is defined as “the over accumulation of and often obsession with domestic pets.” Common traits of animal hoarding include, taking in pets that one is physically or monetarily unable to care for, which often leads to serious neglect, even starvation and death. Many hoarders will deny their inability to care for the animals sufficiently and the impacts on both the animals and people. The hoarding behavior often overwhelms the hoarder and their home leading to unsanitary conditions for both people and pets, neglect, starvation and other dangers.

In the US, animal hoarding affects every community in the country. Authorities discover approximately 1500 new cases and as many as 250,000 animal victims per year. Most cases of animal hoarding are not discovered until it becomes so severe that it creates a significant public health hazard or, crosses over into criminality.

Why do people hoard animals?

Contemporary research suggests that there may be no single pathology behind animal hoarding. Instead, it may be a complex combination of psychological disorders and issues including depression, obsessive-compulsive disorders, delusional thinking and personality disorders. Some hoarders begin by picking up a few strays they see around their neighborhood; others seem to feel that they are on a divine mission to “save” the animals they’ve taken in to their homes. But, they seem to have no understanding of the harm they are doing to the animals, despite overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, a complete inability to cope with the number of animals and even when animals die of neglect in their care. Most hoarders will try to hide the impacts of animal hoarding on themselves and their families in addition to denying the problem and refusing to take responsibility for it.

How to know if you or someone you know is an animal hoarder?

Recognizing the difference between someone who just likes having a lot of pets and an animal hoarder can be difficult. Contrary to the cliché, animal hoarders can be men or women, young or old and from any social or ethnic group. The elderly and the socially isolated seem to be especially vulnerable, perhaps because of ill health or lack of meaningful social contact. The one common trait amongst all hoarders seems to be a complete failure to understand the impacts on themselves, their families and pets. There are a few things to look for to identify a hoarder.

  • They have more animals than they can reasonably care for and may not know the total number they have.
  • The hoarder is socially isolated and may state that the animals are “their only friends”.
  • The hoarder’s home will smell strongly of ammonia or waste. The home will show signs of extreme filth and neglect. The animals defecate anywhere and everywhere.
  • The overwhelming presence of fleas, ticks or other vermin in the home or on the animals.
  • Despite strong evidence, the hoarder will deny the mess, that they are overwhelmed and the extreme negative effects on the animals.

These are only a few of the many signs of animal hoarding. For more information about what to look for and how to help an animal hoarder, visit the Humane Society (http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/abuse_neglect/facts/hoarding.html) or the ASPCA (http://www.aspca.org/fight-animal-cruelty/animal-hoarding.aspx).

Dangers of animal hoarding

Beyond the underlying psychological issues involved in hoarding, there are many other dangers for both people and pets.

Dangers for people

  • Living in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions breathing in ammonia and animal waste can lead to many different diseases such as salmonellosis and e. coli contamination; hepatitis, tapeworm and hookworm, ringworm and other fungal infections, influenza, rabies and even bubonic plague.
  • Pet overcrowding can create a perfect environment for rodent, flea and other pest infestations.
  • Any animals living in hoarding conditions can revert to a feral state and become a significant danger to the people in the house including biting, scratching and other antisocial behavior.
  • Self abuse as well as the abuse and neglect of the other people in the home, especially the elderly and children is prevalent among animal hoarders.

Dangers for animals

  • Illness and injury from overcrowding, neglect and malnutrition.
  • Overcrowding itself is a serious danger. Too many pets living too close together fight, injure one another and spread disease more easily.
  • Competition for scarce food leads to fights and malnutrition.
  • Dehydration is often a greater concern than malnourishment.
  • General neglect – domestic animals need regular bathing, grooming and veterinary care, in hoarding situations the pets don’t receive any of these things leading to infestation of vermin, illness and death.
  • Psychological trauma – many people don’t realize that pets can suffer from emotional and psychological trauma. Pets from hoarding environments often suffer lasting difficulties socializing with other animals and make poor candidates for adoption due to difficulties adjusting to a “normal” home environment.

What can be done about animal hoarding?

Many cities around the country currently try to prosecute severe cases of animal hoarding under Health & Safety statutes or, for operating illegal boarding facilities. These prosecutions are costly, often fail and even if successful, the hoarder typically starts to hoard again regardless of potential consequences.
If you or someone you know might be an animal hoarder, seeking professional psychological or medical help is the best option. Some professionals recommend interventions similar to those that have become popular for those with drug and other addictions, but there is no clear consensus at this time. In some areas, organizations such as the ASPCA (www.aspca.org), Humane Society (http://www.humanesociety.org/) or other local animal rights groups, have resources to help both people and pets affected by hoarding.

With the popularity of pets in this country and the numbers of them that suffer abuse and neglect every day, it’s unlikely that animal hoarding will go away. By disseminating information like this article and other education materials, volunteering when the opportunity presents itself and otherwise shining a light on this dangerous issue, we can all play a part in reducing its impact across the country.