Animal hoarding is a complex and intricate issue with far-reaching effects that encompass mental health, animal welfare and public safety concerns. Animals “collected” by hoarders range in species from cats and dogs to reptiles, rodents, birds, exotics and even farm animals.
The following criteria are used to define animal hoarding:
- An individual possesses more than the typical number of companion animals.
- The individual is unable to provide even minimal standards of nutrition,sanitation, shelter and veterinary care, with this neglect often resulting in starvation, illness and death.
- The individual is in denial of the inability to provide this minimum care and the impact of that failure on the animals, the household and human occupants of the dwelling.
This definition comes from the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, an independent group of academic researchers based in Massachusetts. The full definition and more info can be found at vet.tufts.edu/hoarding.
Why Do People Hoard Animals?
It is not clearly understood why people become animal hoarders. Early research pointed toward a variant of obsessive-compulsive disorders, but newer studies and theories lead toward:
- Attachment disorders in conjunction with personality disorders
- Delusional thinking
- Other mental illnesses
Some animal hoarders began collecting after a traumatic event or loss, while others see themselves as “rescuers” who save animals from lives on the street.
How to Tell if Someone Is a Hoarder
Animal hoarders often appear intelligent and clearly believe they are helping their animals. In addition, many hoarders possess the ability to garner sympathy and to deceive others into thinking their situation is under control. They often are blind to the fact that their animals are suffering under their care.
Animal hoarders range in age, and can be men or women of any race or ethnic group. Elderly people may be more at risk, due to their own deteriorating health and isolation from community and social groups. One commonality between all hoarders is a failure to grasp the severity of their situation.
Signs that may indicate someone is an animal hoarder:
- They have numerous animals and may not know the total number of animals in their care.
- Their home is deteriorated (i.e., dirty windows, broken furniture, holes in wall and floor, extreme clutter).
- There is a strong smell of ammonia, and floors may be covered with dried feces, urine, vomit, etc.
- Animals are emaciated, lethargic and not well socialized.
- Fleas and vermin are present.
- Individual is isolated from community and appears to be in neglect himself.
- Individual insists all animals are happy and healthy—even when there are clear signs of distress and illness.
Hoarders Posing as Rescue Groups or Animal Shelters
Research shows many hoarders are beginning to set themselves up as “rescue shelters,” complete with non-profit status. They may appear to be sensible people, persuasively conveying their love for animals and readiness to take those who are sick and with special needs.
Here are several signs that a rescue group or shelter may involve a hoarder:
- The group is unwilling to let visitors see the location where animals are kept.
- The group will not disclose the number of animals in its care, and makes little effort to adopt animals out.
- More animals are continually taken in, despite the poor condition of existing animals.
- Legitimate shelters and rescue organizations are viewed as the enemy. Animals may be received at a remote location (parking lot, street corner, etc.) rather than at the group's facilities.
Legal Outcomes for Animal Hoarders
Criminal prosecution of animal hoarding can be a difficult process and may not be the most effective route. Such cases are difficult to successfully prosecute and, once litigation ends, the hoarder is likely to resume collecting an excessive number of animals unless closely monitored.
Some say prosecution isn't the answer because hoarders are often emotionally troubled rather than criminally inclined. In some cases, judges can impose conditions that actually help the hoarder, such as by requiring counseling, or by prohibiting the person from having animals.
Animal Hoarding Legislation
Animal hoarding is covered implicitly under every state's animal cruelty statute, which typically requires caretakers to provide sufficient food, water and veterinary care. Only two states, Illinois and Hawaii, currently have statutory language specifically addressing animal hoarding. With guidance from the ASPCA, the Illinois Companion Animal Hoarder Act was created in 2001 to create a legal definition for “companion animal hoarder” and mandate counseling for those convicted of animal cruelty who meet the definition. Animal hoarding itself is not prohibited by the statute. Hawaii's 2008 law is the only state law specifically outlawing animal hoarding. It does not mandate psychological counseling for convicted hoarders or restrict future animal ownership. Anti-hoarding legislation has been proposed, but not passed, in several other states.
How You Can Help
Not everyone who has multiple animals is an animal hoarder. However, if you think someone you know is struggling with animal hoarding, here are some ways you can help:
- Call your local humane law enforcement department, police department, animal welfare organization or veterinarian to initiate the process. A phone call may be the first step to getting hoarders and the animals the help they need.
- Contact social service groups. Your local department of the aging, adult protective services, health departments and other mental health agencies may be able to provide services or links to services.
- Reassure the animal hoarder that it's okay to accept help. Animal hoarders are usually worried that their animals will be killed or that they will never see them again. Regardless of the outcome, assure them that the animals need urgent care and that immediate action is necessary.
- Volunteer your time. With the removal of so many animals from a hoarding situation, the burden on local shelters can be staggering. Volunteer your time to help clean cages, socialize animals, walk dogs and perform other such necessary duties.
- Keep in touch. It may be appropriate for animals to be spayed and neutered and returned to their home if an animal hoarder can provide—or can be aided in providing—care. Under the guidance of an organization, help the individual with daily animal care chores. And if the individual acquires new animals, help ensure that they are spayed/neutered and vaccinated.