Many people collect things: antiques, stamps or coins. Not unusual. Animal hoarders, sometimes known as “collectors”, are people who accumulate animals beyond their space, time, and financial ability to cope. Animal hoarding transcends simply having more than the typical number of animals. The working definition of a hoarder is someone who:
- Accumulates a large number of animals.
- Fails to provide minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, and veterinary care.
- Fails to act on the deteriorating condition of the animals (including disease, starvation, and even death), or the environment (severely overcrowded and unsanitary conditions).
- Fails to act on or recognize the negative.
We’ve all seen news stories showing dozens of sickly cats being removed from a “garbage house”. We wonder how it began and how things got to that point. Dr. Gary Patronek of Tufts University has begun a study with professors at other universities to better understand how and why people change from animal lovers to animal abusers. Nearly 2,000 cases are reported each year nationally. From numerous case studies Dr. Patronek found some very interesting statistics:
- The majority (76%) of hoarders were female and 54% were under 60 years of age.
- 70% were unmarried.
- The most frequently involved animals were cats (65%), dogs (60%) and birds (11%).
- There was a median number of 39 animals per case, but many exceeded 100 animals.
- In 80% of cases, there were animals that were dead or in poor condition, and in 58% of these, the hoarder would not acknowledge that a problem existed.
- 60% of the hoarders studied were repeat offenders.
One common and peculiar characteristic of people who hoard animals is a persistent and powerful belief that they are providing proper care for their animals, despite clear evidence to the contrary. This is true even in cases where the home is so filthy and neglected that it must be torn down. A reasonable argument has been made that, in some cases, hoarders of inanimate objects have suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), a recognized psychological disorder. Recent studies tie animal hoarding to OCD. Two major features of OCD: people with this syndrome experience an overwhelming sense of responsibility for imagined harm to animals, and they engage in unrealistic steps to fulfill this responsibility.
Often the mere sight of an animal in need of a home prompts an emotional attachment so powerful that the animal must be acquired. Once acquired, the animal receives very little attention to its most basic needs, because attention has already been turned to the next ‘rescue’ effort. There is reluctance to relinquish any animals, even when responsible caring homes are available.
Our understanding of this problem is still very limited. While animal care specialists recognize these people are in need of psychiatric help, almost no psychiatric literature exists on this topic. Researchers are trying to convince public officials that mental health treatment of offenders would be more helpful than criminal prosecution, since punishment has not been proven to prevent recurrence.
Not every person living with multiple animals is a hoarder. Many people are capable of caring for several animals, and many people do legitimate rescue work out of their homes. We simply need to be aware of the existence of this problem, and be careful not to enable those who may be acquiring animals for the wrong reasons, or in the wrong situations. Remember that when it comes to animals, “Love is NOT all you need.”
Special thanks and acknowledgement to Dr. Gary Patronek, VMD, Ph.D., Director of Tufts University’s Center for Animals, for his permission to share the results of his studies.