Understanding Animal Hoarding & Its Impact

by Linda Berg
Originally published in The Cat Fanciers’ Almanac, August/September, 2005.
Case File Photos Courtesy of Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley

I would like to talk to you about a growing problem within the fancy. Without a doubt, each of us has been sitting watching the nightly news when they flash pictures of a home that has been raided by local authorities because the neighbors have complained about odor or conditions associated with a large number of poorly cared-for animals. The police go in and find the home full of animals in various stages of neglect. The pictures they show are usually horrible, and we wonder how someone could keep their animals and themselves in these conditions. Sometimes these homes are those of pedigreed breeders and sometimes they are not. However, the problem is growing among those who consider themselves “members” of CFA.

In the first four months of 2005, we rescued 650+ cats, compared to 250 in the first four months of 2004 and 800+ in all of 2004. These figures represent only the cats that Animal Control allowed us to rescue. There are many more we were not allowed to help. In five homes, a total of 310 cats were removed and yes, they were pedigreed cats – Abyssinians, American Bobtails, American Shorthairs, Birmans, British Shorthairs, Japanese Bobtails, Maine Coons, Manx, Persians, Ragdolls, Siamese, Siberians and Tonkinese. The cats which were rescued from these situations were at risk because of severe neglect. It is a very costly undertaking in situations such as these to bring these cats to a healthy quality life.

Why does this Happen?

It can happen for any number of reasons such as:

  • A temporary illness
  • Death of a spouse
  • Change in job situation
  • Hoarding – a rare and strange phenomenon
What is Hoarding?

Hoarding is an illness which is characterized by the excessive accumulation and retention of things and/or animals until they interfere with day-to-day living, such as the care of home, health, family, work and social life. Severe hoarding often leads to public and personal safety and health hazards. The collection of newspapers, magazines, old clothes and other items may cause fires, while animal hoarding can spread contagious diseases. People who hoard animals are compelled to save everything – even dead animals.

Those who compulsively hoard and accumulate are sometimes referred to as “pack rats,” and they are laughed at as being eccentrics. The most famous example of a compulsive hoarder was Langley Collyer who, between 1933 and 1948, filled a mansion on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan with 120 tons of refuse, junk and human waste. He would prowl the streets of Manhattan at night, looking for items to rescue from the trash. Both he and his invalid brother, Homer, were found dead among possessions that included 11 pianos and all the components of a Model T Ford. Langley was actually crushed by a falling heap of heavy items he had rigged as a booby trap for burglars.

What do we know about this illness? In a study done of 54 cases of hoarding, 76% were women, and 46% were 60 years of age or older and worked in caring and teaching professions. About half lived in single person households. The animals most frequently involved were cats, dogs, farm animals and birds. The median number of animals was 39, but four of the cases had more than 100 animals living in the household. In 80% of the cases, animals were reportedly found dead or in poor condition. In 60% of the cases, the hoarder would not acknowledge the problem. Finally, 60% of the hoarders studied were repeat offenders. The rate of recidivism is nearly 100 percent. Even after counseling, hoarders often simply move and start again.

People who hoard animals are becoming well-known to animal care professionals. They exist in almost every community, large or small, rural or urban. They can be ranchers, farmers, breeders or animal rescuers. They come from all walks of life. While animal care specialists recognize that these people are in need of psychiatric help, almost no scientific literature exists on this topic.

Gary Patronek, VMD, Ph.D., and director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at the Tufts University School of Medicine in Massachusetts, conducted one of the first academic examinations of animal hoarding*. “There’s a multi-part definition,” Dr. Patronek said. “Factors include more than the usual number of animals present, deterioration of the conditions in which the animals live and the extent of the denial of that deterioration by the hoarder.”

What is the Impact of Animal Hoarding?
  • There is a large number of animals present in a single household.
  • The caretaker does not provide the minimal standards of care, and neglect often results in starvation and death.
  • The caretaker is neither able to provide this minimum care nor able to appreciate the impact of this on the animals, the household and the human occupants of the dwelling.
  • The caretaker fails to act or recognize the negative impact of the collection on themselves, others and the cats.

Hoarding by definition is a condition in which animals are deprived of even minimal care. The degree of deprivation will vary in each situation, depending on how long it occurs before discovery. As conditions deteriorate and crowding increases, irritating levels of ammonia develop from accumulated feces and urine, disease among the cats may spread, injuries are not treated, sick animals are ignored and the early stages of starvation begin. As conditions worsen, animals die from starvation and untreated illness or injury. It is not unusual for dead animals to be found among the living with cannibalization having begun.

Even when confronted with how they are living – feces deep on the floor, dead animals laying about the home, and other horrendous conditions – the hoarder often fails to recognize there is anything wrong.

What can you do?

First, understand that even if your best friend is a hoarder, he/she will not hear your pleas to help because in their eyes there is not a problem. The hoarder will become angry when you confront them and they will most likely cut you out of his/her life. Hoarding is truly a disease and has to be treated as such. Intervention is not something that you can accomplish alone, and you will need assistance from the authorities and/or social services.

Is there a difference between hoarding and someone who is overwhelmed?

Yes! The difference is that the person who is overwhelmed by the numbers of animals they must care for due to a variety of reasons will welcome your help; they are able to recognize they have too many cats and that they have a problem. They will begin to place animals that they cannot care for and will be happy that their cats are finding new homes.

The hoarder, however, isolates him/herself and has no awareness that the animals are in trouble. A hoarder believes he/she is the only one who can take care of the animals correctly, and yet they are not able to give them the care they need. They cannot see the empty food dishes, the dirty litter boxes or the dead animals. In their eyes, all is well because all these cats are in their care.

If you feel that you have a hoarder in your cat club or neighborhood, you may need to get family, adult protective services, mental health agencies, veterinarians and code enforcement involved in order to save the animals and help the hoarder.

I recently worked with a club where this was the situation. They confronted the hoarder, who refused help of any kind. At this point, the club involved the CFA Animal Welfare Program to see if we could help facilitate the placement of the cats and the cleaning of the home. A letter from Animal Welfare requesting a Cattery Inspection within thirty days was issued. The individual panicked, and when they were unable to get Animal Welfare to change the conditions of the letter, they turned to the club for help.

The club members helped clean and sanitize the house. Then, members went to the local thrift shop and obtained new furniture. The cats were taken and placed, and a few spays and neuters were returned to the individual. That does not mean it won’t happen again, but the club members are watching and should be able to step in if things begin to slide the other way again.

In this instance, the request for an inspection from the CFA Animal Welfare Program worked to help push the hoarder to ask for help, and the animals in the situation were taken out and cared for. In some cases, this approach may not work. Depending on the situation and the number of animals involved, you might have to call in Social Services and local animal control authorities to help rescue the cats and get help for the hoarder. At some point, the mental health community will recognize this problem for the illness it is, and develop treatments (as they have for many other mental illnesses). In the meantime, it is up to us to try and help with this problem as it exists in the CFA community.

If you believe someone you know has a hoarding problem, don’t hesitate to email me. Together, we can find a way to help.