Many people enjoy the company of pets. For example, according to the Humane Society of the United States, 35% of Americans own at least one dog, with another 33% owning at least one cat. While most pet owners provide excellent care to one or two animals at most, for some people, the desire to keep animals as pets crosses the line into a compulsive behavior called animal hoarding. Let’s explore the basics of animal hoarding.
What is Animal Hoarding?
Animal hoarding is characterized by the following:
- obsessive collecting of animals
- an inability to provide minimal standards of care for these animals
- a failure to recognize that one is not able to provide minimal standards of care
Research has demonstrated that on average, animal hoarders usually have around 40 animals in the house at any given time, but that this number can be as high as 100 or more. Unlike an animal shelter, which has the proper staff and facility to house this number of animals, the lack of care, crowded conditions and general squalor in an animal hoarders home frequently leads to malnutrition, illness and death of the animals.
In addition to an inability to care for the animals in the home, people who hoard animals are often unable to take care of themselves. As well, the homes of animal hoarders are often eventually destroyed by the accumulation of animal feces and infestation by insects.
Studies of compulsive hoarding indicate that animal hoarding is fairly common. As many as 33% of cases of compulsive hoarding are thought to involve animals. Importantly, there is some data to suggest that animal hoarding is on the rise.
Who is Affected by Animal Hoarding?
Animal hoarders are usually middle aged or older, and the vast majority of cases of animal hoarding involve women. Many people who hoard animals are also affected by mood and anxiety disorders, such as OCD as well as personality disorders.
Although there are exceptions, the typical animal hoarder is unmarried, lives alone, and has few, if any, friends. This is perhaps unsurprising, as many animal hoarders form intense “human to human” relationships between themselves and their animals that may take precedence over actual people. Animal hoarders build their collections by scouring classified ads in the newspaper, visiting animal adoption centers, or through uncontrolled breeding within their own home.
Very little research has been carried out to explain the causes of animal hoarding; however, various theories have been proposed. One theory is that the hoarder may have difficulties with human attachment. It is not uncommon for hoarders to have had early experiences of neglect and abuse. There is some evidence that animal hoarding may begin after the experience of a loss or death of a loved one. It has been speculated that the animals may act, in effect, as substitutes for the individual who has been lost or for other relationships.
Animal Hoarding Often Involves a Significant Lack of Insight
Interestingly, despite the terrible living conditions provided for the animals, many animal hoarders are convinced that they are the only ones who can properly care for the animals and do not want to relinquish care and control of the animals under any circumstances. Moreover, animal hoarders often become vigorously defensive and dismissive when objective and obvious consequences of their poor animal care are pointed out, such as starvation, illness, or disease.
A significant health risk to both the animal hoarder, as well as the animals living in the home, is the frequent refusal of animal hoarders to acknowledge the death of an animal in the home. This often leads to failure to discard the bodies of animals that have died or to store carcasses. Of course, this often very quickly leads to unsanitary conditions and insect infestations in the home that are a danger to all of the residents -– animal and human alike.
Can Animal Hoarding be Treated?
Like other forms of compulsive hoarding, animal hoarding appears to be very difficult to treat. Left on its own, animal hoarding typically becomes progressively worse until complaints by neighbors or family results in legal action being taken. Little to no research has focused on the medical and psychological treatment of animal hoarding.
As in compulsive hoarding related to objects, a profound lack of insight may reflect a major barrier to the animal hoarder benefiting from treatment –- it is very difficult to generate motivation for treatment when the hoarder does not perceive there to be any problem, despite a wealth of objective evidence. Given the growing problem of animal hoarding, more research is needed to discover how to best treat this serious form of mental illness.
Patronek, G.J. & Nathanson, J.N. "A theoretical perspective to inform assessment and treatment strategeis for animal hoarders". Clinical Psychology Review 2009 29: 274-281.
Nathanson, J.N. "Animal Hoarding: Slipping into the darkness of comorbid animal and self-neglect". Journal of Elder Abuse and Neglect 2009 21: 307-324.