Animal hoarding involves keeping higher than usual numbers of animals as pets without having the ability to properly house or care for them, while at the same time denying this inability. Compulsive hoarding can be characterized as a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder rather than deliberate cruelty towards animals. Hoarders are deeply attached to their pets, and find it extremely difficult to let the pets go. They typically cannot comprehend that they are harming their pets by failing to provide them with proper care. Hoarders tend to believe that they provide the right amount of care for their pets. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals provides a "Hoarding Prevention Team", which works with hoarders to help them attain a manageable and healthy number of pets.
Characteristics of a hoarder
An animal hoarder is distinguished from a person who keeps an unusually large number of pets, but who cares for them properly. A hoarder is distinguished from an animal breeder
, who would have a large number of animals as a result of their business. According to one study, the distinguishing feature is that a hoarder "fails to provide the animals with adequate food, water, sanitation, and veterinary care, and … is in denial about this inability to provide adequate care." Along with other compulsive hoarding
behaviours, it is linked in the DSM-IV
to obsessive-compulsive disorder
and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder
. Alternatively, animal hoarding could be related to addiction
, or even focal delusion
Many states have no legal definition for animal hoarding (though localities may have a limit of the number and types of pets), and many people are unaware of the severity of neglect
in typical hoarding situations. Animals rescued from hoarders must often be cared for at the rescuer's expense, and the high cost of doing this can also act as a disincentive for prosecuting hoarding cases. These factors can make it a lengthy and challenging legal process to secure a verdict against an animal hoarder charged with animal cruelty.
In 2005, the Animal Legal Defense Fund won a significant legal victory in the Sanford, North Carolina case ALDF v. Woodley. A unique North Carolina state law allows any person or organization to sue an animal abuser. In April 2005, the judge in the case granted an injunction allowing ALDF and county authorities to remove more than 300 diseased, neglected and abused dogs from the home of a Sanford couple. ALDF was granted custody of the animals, and the hoarders were found guilty of animal cruelty charges. ALDF subsequently won the right to restrict the hoarders' visitation rights while the dogs remained in custody during ongoing appeals.
Dangers of hoarding animals
The health issues in animal hoarding encompass a variety of concerns related to both individual and public health. Animal hoarding, defined as the "pathological human behavior that involves a compulsive need to obtain and control animals, coupled with a failure to recognize their suffering," is the cause of many severe health risks that threaten the hoarded animals, individuals living in hoarding residences, and surrounding neighbors. In addition, it implicates a variety of mental health
issues. The health effects of animal hoarding are widespread and detrimental to all involved.
Health effects on animals
Due to the deleterious effects on the health of the animals involved, animal hoarding is considered a form of animal cruelty
. Hoarders often fail to provide even basic care for their animals, and this results in disease and often death. The primary animal health issues involved are malnourishment
, and problems related to neglect. Consequences of hoarding are long-lasting and continue to affect the animals even after they have been rescued and provided with better care.
Lack of sufficient food and water is a common feature of hoarding situations. The immediate consequence of this is starvation and death. One study found at least one dead animal present in over half of the examined cases, the leading cause of death being an insufficient food and water supply. Malnourishment also leads to increased susceptibility to diseases, and the hoarded animals are often in advanced stages of sickness. Further, when there is a limited food supply, animals may resort to aggressive behavior in competing for the food, killing and sometimes even eating other animals. The hoarder’s failure to provide sufficient food and water constitutes one of the principal health risks to hoarded animals.
Overcrowding is also an acute animal health problem in hoarding situations. The number of animals found in hoarding cases range from dozens to several hundreds, with extreme cases reaching over a thousand. These animals are confined to houses, apartments, or even trailer-homes. In one case 306 cats were removed from a home, 87 of which were dead. Corpses were found embedded in the chimney and living room furniture. In addition to lack of living space, the extreme overcrowding facilitates the spread of diseases among animals. Furthermore, in cases where more than one species are confined to the same living spaces, the animals can pose a danger to each other due to inter-species aggression. Due to insufficient living space, the spread of disease, and close proximity to other animals, overcrowding is a major animal health concern of hoarding.
Various other health problems arise from hoarders’ neglect of and inability to provide basic care for the animals. Lack of veterinary attention is notable among these. Hoarders, refusing to acknowledge the deteriorating health conditions of their animals and scared they will be forced to give up custody, often refuse to bring their animals in for veterinary treatment. As a result, diseases are left untreated and allowed to become more severe. Another problem tied to neglect is poor sanitary conditions for the animals. Basic animal waste management is absent in virtually all animal-hoarding situations, and animals are found filthy and often infected with parasites as a result. Further, animals suffer behaviorally from a lack of socialization caused by an absence of normal interaction with humans and other animals. Hoarders’ neglect to provide even minimal standards of care, in addition to the problems of insufficient food and severe crowding, contribute much to the health problems of animal hoarding.
Many of these health problems continue to cause suffering even after the animals are rescued. Strained animal shelters or humane societies, forced to prioritize when dealing with a large number of rescued animals, may be unable to provide immediate treatment to many animals. Further, many of the rescued animals, due to health or behavioral problems, may be un-adoptable. Euthanasia
, even in cases where the animals are not beyond rehabilitation, is often the only option for rescued animals. The effects of hoarding on the health of the animals involved are severe and lasting, taking heavy tolls on both their physical and psychological well-being.
Health effects on humans
Animal hoarding also causes many health problems for the individuals involved. Hoarders, by definition, fail to correct deteriorating sanitary conditions of their living spaces, and this gives rise to several health risks for those living in and around hoarding residences. Animal hoarding is at the root of a string of human health problems including horrendous sanitation, fire hazards
, zoonotic diseases
, and neglect of oneself and dependents.
Poor sanitation practices, a general characteristic of hoarding households, poses numerous health risks to inhabitants, both animal and human. In typical hoarding residences, animal waste is found coating interior surfaces, including beds, countertops, and cupboards. In one case, floors and other surfaces were found to be covered in a six-inch layer of feces and garbage.
In addition to severe odors which may pose a nuisance to neighbors, animal waste poses serious health risks in both the spread of parasites and the presence of noxious ammonia levels. OSHA, the United States agency regulating air quality standards in work-related environments, has identified an ammonia level of 300 parts per million as life-threatening for humans; in many hoarding cases the atmospheric ammonia level in the housing space approaches this number, requiring the use of protective clothing and breathing apparati during inspections or interventions. In an extreme case, the ammonia level in the hoarder’s house was 152 parts per million, even after ventilation.
The presence of animal waste also prevents sanitary means of food storage and preparation, which puts residents at particular risk of contracting food-related illnesses and parasites. Insect and rodent infestation can both follow and worsen hoarding conditions, and can potentially spread to the surrounding environment including nearby buildings. In one case, an elementary school had to be shut down due to a flea infestation that had spread from a nearby dog hoarder residence.
Hoarders are frequently found to collect large numbers of inanimate objects in addition to animals, giving rise to extreme clutter as well. Hoarded objects can include newspapers, trash, clothing, and food; and the clutter inhibits normal movement around the house, hampering household maintenance and sanitary food preparation; heightening risks of accidents and contributing to the overall level of squalor. A lack of functioning utilities, such as toilets, sinks, electricity, or proper heating (often for non-payment of bills, a common theme in cluttering, though poor maintenance may also be a cause) further exacerbates the problem. Fire hazards comprise yet another health issue tied to poor sanitation.; the clutter found in many hoarding households prevents workable fire escape plans and serves as a possible fuel when located close to heat sources. The risk is amplified when hoarders, due to inoperative normal heating systems, seek alternate heating methods such as fire places, stoves, or kerosene heaters.
Another human health issue caused by animal hoarding is the risk of zoonotic diseases. Defined as “human diseases acquired from or transmitted to any other vertebrate animal,” zoonotic diseases can often be lethal and in all cases constitute a serious public health concern. Examples of well-known zoonotic diseases include bubonic plague
. Common domesticated animals constitute a large portion of animals carrying zoonoses, and as a result, humans involved in animal hoarding situations are at particular risk of contracting disease. Zoonoses that may arise in hoarding situations—through means such as dog, cat, or rat bites—include rabies, salmonellosis
, catscratch fever
, and ringworm
. One zoonose of special concern is toxoplasmosis
, which can be transmitted to humans through cat feces or badly prepared meat, and is known to cause severe birth defects
or stillbirth in the case of infected pregnant women. The risk of zoonotic diseases is amplified by the possibility of community epidemics. Overall, zoonotic diseases constitute a major human health issue related to animal hoarding.
Self-neglect and child/elder abuse
The problems of self-neglect
and child abuse
are also health problems associated with animal hoarding. Self-neglect can be defined as “the inability to provide for oneself the goods or services to meet basic needs,” and has been shown to be an “independent risk factor for death” . While self-neglect is a condition generally associated with the elderly, animal hoarders of any age can and do suffer from it. This is demonstrated by the fact that hoarders’ lifestyles often match the degenerate sanitary conditions that surround them. Child and elder abuse arise when dependents are living with the hoarder. According to one study, dependents lived with the hoarder in over half of the cases. As with his or her animals, the hoarder often fails to provide adequate care for dependents both young and old, who suffer from a lack of basic necessities as well as the health problems caused by unsanitary conditions. In one case, two children of a couple hoarding 58 cats and other animals were forced to repeat kindergarten and first grade because of excessive absence due to respiratory infections. Self-neglect and neglect of dependents make up a major human health concern of animal hoarding.
Mental health issues
Though it has not been firmly linked to any specific psychological disorder, evidence suggests that there is “a strong mental health component” in animal hoarding. Models that have been projected to explain animal hoarding include delusional disorder
, attachment disorder
, obsessive-compulsive disorder
, and various others, but more study is required before definitive explanations or diagnoses can be made.
Animal hoarders display symptoms of delusional disorder in that they have a “belief system out of touch with reality”. Virtually all hoarders lack insight into the extent of deterioration in their habitations and on the health of their animals, refusing to acknowledge that anything is wrong. Further, hoarders may believe they have “a special ability to communicate and/or empathize with animals,” rejecting any offers of assistance. Delusional disorder is an effective model in that it offers an explanation of hoarder’s apparent blindness to the realities of their situations.
Another model that has been suggested to explain animal hoarding is attachment disorder
. Attachment disorder, which is primarily caused by poor parent-child relationships during childhood, is characterized by an inability to form “close relationships in adulthood”. As a result, those suffering from attachment disorder may turn to possessions, such as animals, to fill their need for a loving relationship. Interviews with animal hoarders have revealed that often hoarders experienced domestic trauma in childhood, providing evidence for this model.
Perhaps the strongest psychological model put forward to explain animal hoarding is obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) 5. An overwhelming sense of responsibility for something is characteristic of OCD patients, who then take unrealistic measures to fulfill their perceived duty. Animal hoarders often feel a strong sense of responsibility to take care of and protect animals, and their solution—that of acquiring as many animals as they possibly can—is clearly unrealistic. Further, the hoarding of inanimate objects, practiced by a majority of animal hoarders, is a fairly common occurrence in OCD patients. These connections between animal hoarding and obsessive-compulsive disorder suggest that OCD may be a useful model in explaining animal hoarding behavior.
Cat hoarding and "Cat Ladies"
Recently, there has been speculation in popular media that the widespread incidence of cat hoarding may be related to infection with the Toxoplasma gondii
parasite Unlike ordinary animal hoarding, which is often caused by obsessive compulsive disorder
, it has been speculated that one of the effects of Toxoplasma gondii could render the infected host attracted to, or at least not offended by, the scent of cat urine.
Other models have also been suggested, including zoophilia
, and addiction
, although there is little direct evidence to support these.
Further research and study is needed before any psychological models of animal hoarding can be firmly established.