When you think of an animal hoarder, does the proverbial "cat lady" come to mind? The image of someone who has amassed dozens of felines within the confines of a small apartment is reality, but it's not the only game in town. There's also the man down the street who has a dozen dogs or the young woman across town who thinks 50 ferrets are her surrogate children. In fact, hoarding is a widespread problem affecting as many as 250,000 U.S. animals annually.
Typically, animal hoarders don't recognize they're giving their animals substandard care and have trouble letting go of a single pet -- even if the animals number in the dozens (as many as 800 pets have been seized from a single home). An animal hoarder truly believes he or she is caring for his or her animals in the best way possible, when in fact quite the opposite is taking place. It's this disconnect that's a hallmark of animal hoarding. In fact, animal hoarders aren't defined by the sheer number of animals they collect, but by their inability to properly care for the animals.
Hoarded animals, which run the gamut from cats and dogs to chickens and venomous snakes, suffer from unsanitary living conditions. Often, they are sick, dying and poorly socialized. Once rescued, all this accumulated stress makes them difficult to rehabilitate. The physical healing process can take months, and the socialization process can take even longer. To recover, these animals require the help of people with special training.
Too Much of a Good Thing
It's hard to argue against petting a friendly dog or curling up with a purring cat, which is probably why most people understand the need to live with animal companions. Unfortunately for animal hoarders, this drive to be around animals is rarely satiated. Sometimes they collect pets to ease their own anxiety or insulate themselves from others, but animal hoarders all have one thing in common: They take on more pets than they can realistically handle. And, a pet surplus creates an environment that's harmful not only to animals, but to humans as well.
As animal hoarders continually add pets to their collections, they're rarely up to the challenge of housetraining and cleaning up the copious amounts of waste produced by so many animals. The filth gradually builds. Ammonia levels rise from unchecked urination, causing respiratory distress in animals and humans. Feces pile up in and around the home. The sheer volume of animals results in bare lawns, and chewed and torn carpets, walls and furniture. Animals have litter after litter, and often the young die before maturity because of their living conditions. In fact, it's not unusual to find decaying animals under layers of feces within the home.
The signs of compromised animal welfare aren't always this obvious. Even if animals are kept clean and healthy, there can still be trouble. Living for extended periods of time in crates that don't allow room to stretch or being subjected to unnatural light cycles (like having the lights on all the time), can be just as damaging.
Animal hoarders underestimate the degree of destruction caused by living with so many pets. They're wary of letting outsiders into their largely private worlds, so they often avoid veterinary care for their animals. This results in animals that live with parasites, communicable and terminal illnesses, and behavioral issues. Most animal hoarders are ill-equipped to deal with the volume of food the animals require; often, they simply don't have the financial means to buy adequate rations. Although their animals grow thinner by the day, animal hoarders simply don't notice the signs of malnutrition.
The animals, however, will continue to suffer the consequences of their neglect, long after rescue.
The Lingering Impact of Hoarding
The problems an animal experiences as part of a hoard could happen if it were the only cat or dog in a home. But when it is one animal out of many, the sheer number of animals magnifies any problems. If, for example, a dog is confined in a small space and unable to avoid other threatening dogs, it would certainly add an element of peril to daily life. Or a flea infestation could quickly spread from animal to animal before it could be brought under control.
So what happens to animals after they're seized from a hoarder's home? At the extreme, the animals may be so malnourished or terminally ill they must be euthanized. Even relatively healthy animals with serious behavioral problems are sometimes killed after being rescued.
Most public animal shelters are overwhelmed by the sheer glut of animals seized from hoarders. Short on funds and unable to adopt the animals, the animals may be euthanized after a short stay at the shelter. However, there are some no-kill animal shelters that will house them indefinitely. This allows enough time for most animals to rehabilitate physically. Most will have infectious diseases, like parasites, and many will be injured from overcrowding and fights for limited food supplies. Typically, hoarded animals are underweight, and have hair loss or vision or hearing problems because of long-term malnutrition.
The chronic stress of crowded, confined conditions also leads to psychological issues in animals. They are more difficult to housetrain because they may have grown accustomed to urinating and defecating in their crates or kennels, or relieving themselves at will throughout the home. Hoarded animals may show extreme shyness or aggression, and have trouble bonding with humans. After experiencing a survival-focused existence, they can be a challenge to socialize.
Help for Hoarded Animals
Would you know if the cats next door were actually part of a serious problem posed by animal hoarding? After all, numbers alone don't tell the tale. It's possible that your neighbor could have a dozen cats, all spayed and neutered, who regularly receive veterinary care and who live in a clean and safe environment.
If, however, your neighbor is unsure how many cats actually roam the domicile, it signals a larger problem. Troubling too, are warning signs like a general state of home disrepair or clutter, as well as a strong smell of ammonia, feces or decaying flesh. Spotting animals ill-equipped to cope with strangers, or animals that appear thin, injured or flea-infested, can be signals of substandard living conditions, as well. If your neighbor neglects his or her own hygiene, or lives in isolation while insisting the animals are healthy and happy (despite evidence to the contrary) it's probably time for a carefully executed intervention. You can start the ball rolling by contacting local law enforcement or your city's animal control officer.
Typically, treatment for animal hoarders involves a team of people, from psychologists and animal rescue organizations to professional organizers. As the number of hoarding cases reported in the United States continues to grow (about 6,000 new cases are reported each year), so does awareness. Although animal hoarding is not currently a diagnosis recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, certain animal hoarding experts are lobbying for its inclusion.
Today, many shelters have specially trained workers and volunteers who can help hoarded animals overcome aggression, shyness or a general lack of socialization. But this process, if successful, takes lots of time and patience. It highlights the fact that previously hoarded animals are slow to recover, and are at a disadvantage when it's time for adoption.
For more information on how to help an animal hoarder, check out our resources page.
- American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "Animal Hoarding." 2008. (Dec. 17, 2010) http://www.aspca.org/fight-animal-cruelty/animal-hoarding.aspx
- Cassiday, Karen. Ph.D. Personal interview. Dec. 17, 2010.
- Farm Animal Welfare Council. "Five Freedoms." (Dec. 17, 2010) http://www.fawc.org.uk/freedoms.htm
- Gonzales, Corey. Ph.D. Personal interview. Dec. 17, 2010.
- Manning, Sue. "When Animal Rescuers Become Animal Hoarders." Associated Press. Sept. 2, 2010. (Dec. 17, 2010) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38978396/ns/health-pet_health?ns=health-pet_health
- The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium. "Factors Affecting Animal Welfare." Tufts University. (Dec. 17, 2 010). http://www.tufts.edu/vet/hoarding/animal.htm