Earlier this year, ASPCA Humane Law Enforcement Agents arrived at a New York City apartment to find that dozens of cats and kittens had overtaken the small space. The cats were severely malnourished, and many suffered from upper respiratory disease. There were no litter boxes, and the floor was covered in several inches of feces and urine. Living among the filth and debris was an 85-year-old woman suffering from dementia—she had been hoarding animals for years.
Animal hoarding is a complex and intricate social issue with far-reaching effects that encompass mental health, animal welfare and public safety concerns. Victims can include cats, dogs, reptiles, rodents, birds, exotics and even farm animals. While it’s not clear why people become animal hoarders, current research suggests the cause is often attachment disorder in conjunction with personality disorders, paranoia, dementia, depression and other mental illness. The hoarder does not intend to inflict harm on animals, and in most cases, the hoarder can no longer take care of himself, much less multiple animals.
"We often see that animal hoarders have experienced some traumatic event or loss in their lives," says Fiona Knight, Cruelty Intervention Advocacy Manager at the ASPCA. “Usually, they are very lonely and isolated people—and the animals become their primary source of bonding and interaction.”
While the ASPCA does pursue cruelty charges when appropriate, in many cases, prosecution is not the answer. Not only are such cases difficult to successfully prosecute, but once released, hoarders are overwhelmingly likely to resume collecting excessive numbers of animals. The solution lies in supplying hoarders with the resources and tools they need to keep them from repeating their destructive patterns.
“As a clinical social worker, it is my job to go in and work with the hoarders. Not only do I educate them on the problems caused by having so many animals, but I also connect them with appropriate services,” says Knight. “Whether individuals need a therapist who specializes in hoarding, a cleaning service or the assistance of adult protective services, we provide the resources. Our first priority is to remove the animals and provide them with immediate treatment, but our job doesn’t end there.”
For more information about animal hoarding and how you can help, please visit our Animal Hoarding resources online.