By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 13 April 2011)
Contrary to the crazy cat lady stereotype, animal hoarders – those who collect far more animals than they are able to care for – are found among all demographic groups.
An estimated 250,000 animals per year are victims of hoarding. In the U.S. alone, there are anywhere from 700 to 2,000 cases each year.
The Definition of Animal Hoarding
Animal hoarding refers to the pathological practice of keeping far more than the usual number of animals while being unable to maintain sanitation, good nutrition, adequate shelter, or veterinary care for them. Hoarded animals often suffer from neglect, starvation, and illness.
Hoarded animals may be cats, dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, ferrets, rats, birds, or any other domestic pets, as well as farm animals such as chickens, horses, or cattle. Some hoarders even collect wild animals.
Cats are a popular choice among hoarders because large numbers of cats are easier to conceal than dogs, farm animals, or wild animals. Overall, cats and dogs are the most commonly collected pets, with one study finding that 65% of hoarding cases involved cats and 60% involved dogs (a single hoarder may collect more than one type of animal).
Characteristics of Animal Hoarders
The stereotypical animal hoarder is an older, single woman of relatively low socioeconomic status – the “crazy cat lady.” While animal hoarders are somewhat more likely to fit these demographic categories, overall, they are found in all age groups and income categories, among married people as well as singles, and in both genders.
One study found that 46% of hoarders were 60 years of age and over, though just over half did not live alone. Despite their loner image, animal hoarders who are socially isolated have usually actively withdrawn from society due to their collecting, rather than collecting due to social rejection.
Hoarding behaviour may develop in response to childhood neglect, abuse, or family instability, as well as adulthood loss, trauma, or extreme stress, or it may arise spontaneously with no obvious trigger. It is presumed to be a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and is sometimes linked with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
In addition to being more likely to suffer from OCD symptoms such as counting and ordering compulsions, compulsive shopping, and gambling, hoarders of animals or objects have higher-than-average rates of:
- Body-dysmorphic disorder
- Compulsive collecting of objects to the point of severely cluttering living spaces
- Dementia (among older sufferers)
- Depression and other mood disorders
- Diogenes syndrome (characterized by social withdrawal, extreme self-neglect, and domestic squalor)
- Personality disorders
- Social phobias
- Tourette’s syndrome
However, the majority of people who suffer from these conditions are not animal hoarders.
Hoarders are different from those who run puppy mills or kitten mills in that the former suffer from a type of mental illness, whereas the latter keep animals in horrendous conditions to maximize profits. Mill operators deliberately exploit animals. Hoarders, by contrast, live in a state of poor sanitation and clutter, neglecting themselves as well as their pets, because they have organizational impairments, collecting compulsions, and other problems. They are usually not aware that their behaviour could harm themselves or the community.
Hoarders are often motivated by love of animals and a desire to rescue them. They don’t seem to understand that the conditions in which they keep their animals cause them to suffer. Rather, they seem to genuinely believe that their pets are well-cared-for and healthy despite evidence to the contrary.
Problems Caused by Animal Hoarding
Animal hoarding represents a personal and public health hazard. Specific problems associated with hoarding include the following.
Animals suffer due to neglect, overcrowding, and lack of veterinary care, becoming infested with parasites, languishing with untreated injuries, and experiencing thirst and starvation. Dead animals may be left where they have fallen for days or even weeks, and others may be forced to eat them to survive.
Personal Health Problems
Animal hoarders may suffer from medical problems due to self-neglect. Just as they don’t seem aware that their animals are unhealthy, many hoarders fail to take care of themselves, and to recognize or seek treatment for their own health problems.
Unsanitary conditions put other members of the household, particularly the elderly and children, at risk for health problems. Piles of excrement and toxic air in the animal hoarder’s home due to high levels of ammonia can represent a serious health hazard.
Spread of Disease
Animal hoarding increases the risk of spreading illness-causing bacteria, viruses, and parasites from animals to humans, including toxoplasmosis, salmonellosis, psittacosis, campylobacter, ringworm, and cryptosporidium.
Animal hoarding can cause serious property damage. Some hoarders’ homes have to be torn down because they are in such poor shape that they can’t be salvaged.
Treatment for Animal Hoarding
In recent years, researchers have begun to examine the bizarre phenomenon of animal hoarding in an attempt to understand what causes it and to develop effective treatments for the disorder. Thus far it has been found that hoarding is not usually responsive to OCD medications or psychotherapy, though cognitive-behavioural therapies can be beneficial in some cases.
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- Frost, Randy, PhD. (1 April 2000). “People Who Hoard Animals.” Psychiatric Times, 17(4).
- The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium. (2004). “About Hoarding,” “Health Issues,” “Animal Welfare,” “Medical Literature” (all abstracts).