Animal hoarding is not just a complicated psychological disorder, it’s a public health danger. Most recently popularized by Animal Planet’s ‘Confessions’, animal hoarding is a growing problem in the U.S. Current estimates put the number of animals trapped every year in hoarding situations at 250,000. Experts believe that many more remain unreported. Dogs and cats aren’t the only species ‘collected’ … reptiles, rabbits, birds, rodents, even farm animals are accumulated by hoarders.
Generally speaking, animal hoarding has two common elements: one, a household with more than the typical number of companion animals and, two, an inability to provide minimal standards of nutrition, shelter, veterinary care and basic sanitation. Sadly, a third aspect can prove even more deadly, with extreme neglect which can result in untreated disease and starvation. Regardless of how bad the situation becomes, hoarders seem unwilling to admit their inability to provide for their animals. In most cases, they remain blind to the horrific conditions of their own creation.
So, what causes someone to become an animal hoarder? New research suggests attachment syndromes are to blame, often in conjunction with other mental disorders -- most commonly obsessive compulsive personalities, but also with paranoia, delusional thinking and dementia. Some begin hoarding in the wake of a traumatic event, such as the loss of a close family member. Many view themselves as full-time rescuers, believing that they’re saving animals from pain and hardship. Typically, they have no awareness that they are actually hurting their animals.
Here are some of the warning signs that someone might have a problem with animal hoarding:
- An excessive number of animals in the home and yard. Persons may not even be able to tell you the total number of creatures under their care.
- Home in an obvious state of disrepair (e.g., dirty windows, broken furniture, holes in wall and floor, extreme clutter, etc.).
- Property emanates a strong odor of ammonia. A peek through window reveals floors covered in dried feces, urine, vomit, etc.
- Animals are emaciated, lethargic and poorly socialized.
- Presence of fleas, flies and vermin.
- Individual appears isolated from neighbors and family, exhibits signs of personal neglect.
- Individual insists all animals are happy and healthy, despite clear evidence to the contrary.
Some hoarders go to excessive lengths to hide their secret, going so far as to pose as a legitimate rescue group or animal sanctuary, complete with an approved non-profit tax status. They create elaborate websites, disguising the true circumstances in their homes. To determine whether or not a hoarder is masquerading as a rescue group, here are some things to watch out for:
- Unwillingness to allow visitors or see where the animals live.
- Refusal to disclose the number of animals in its care.
- Additional animals are always welcome, even if many of the current pets are suffering from illnesses or injury.
- Little to no evidence of successful adoptions.
- Animal surrenders generally accepted off-premises, with requests to meet in parking lots, street corners, etc.
If someone you know is an animal hoarder, there are some ways that you can help.
Pick up the phone and call your local animal welfare enforcement agency, police department, animal shelter or veterinarian. They can help to initiate the healing process. You may not want to be the person who gets anyone “in trouble,” but just know that a simple phone call could be the vital first step towards recovery for all involved.
Reassure the animal hoarder that it's okay to accept help. Remind them that everyone gets overwhelmed at some point in their lives. It’s not uncommon for animal hoarders to obsessively worry about their animals. Once they fully comprehend that their animals need urgent medical care, most are willing to take immediate action.
Seek the assistance of social service groups. Animal hoarding is not just about the animals. Agencies specializing in aging populations, adult protective services, health departments and other mental health groups will know best how to get hoarders the help they need.
Volunteer. After hoarding situations are uncovered, the removal of so many animals can be a staggering burden on local shelters. Volunteer your time and/or financial support or whatever you can do to help during the transition phase.
Educate others about the harm a hoarding situation can cause. Animal hoarding has often been portrayed as a harmless eccentricity — for example, the “crazy cat lady”. Members of your community need to be aware of the negative impacts. Who knows perhaps they’ll be inspired to help other overwhelmed animal caregivers, too!
Dr Jane Bicks