Animal Hoarding

A Complex Issue

Animal “hoarding” can be identified when a person is housing more animals than they can adequately and appropriately care for. It is a complex issue that often encompasses mental health, animal welfare and public safety concerns. Animal hoarding is defined by an inability to provide even minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, shelter and veterinary care—often resulting in over-breeding of animals, animal starvation, illness and even death. In some cases, guardians believe they are helping their animals and deny this inability to provide minimum care.

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How We Help

The ASPCA works closely with numerous social welfare agencies in New York City to provide veterinary services such as spay/neuter and vaccines and additional resources for pet owners. We also work with pet owners who may choose to surrender some of the animals in their home and help them adequately care for their remaining pets.

In severe cases that require police intervention, the ASPCA will work with local law enforcement and prosecutors to rescue, care for, and help get justice for the animals. Our assistance may include field rescue, temporary sheltering, investigative and legal support, forensic services, veterinary and behavioral care and, where there has been either a voluntary relinquishment of animals or court ordered forfeiture, placement of animals involved.

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How to Identify Animal Hoarding

Having multiple animals does not automatically indicate hoarding. There are several signs that may indicate that someone has an unmanageable problem:

  • The person owns an unusual number of animals. In some cases, the person may not know the total number of animals in their care.
  • The person is unable to provide minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, shelter and veterinary care for the animals.
  • The home or property has deteriorated (i.e., dirty windows, broken furniture, holes in the wall and floor, extreme clutter).
  • There is a strong odor, and floors may be covered with dried feces, urine, vomit, etc.
  • Animals may be emaciated, lethargic and under-socialized.
  • Fleas and vermin are present.
  •  The person may be isolated from social support and may neglect themselves or appear physically or mentally unwell.
  • In some cases, the person may desire assistance to rectify the situation, help the animals and their living environment. In other cases, the person may not have awareness of the severity or decline help intended to resolve the situation.
Legal Protection for Animal Victims

Depending on the severity of the situation, animal hoarding may be criminally actionable under state animal cruelty statutes, which typically requires caretakers to provide sufficient food, water and veterinary care.

Where criminal convictions are obtained, it can be important for sentences to include limitations on the number of, or the keeping of, animals; monitoring of the offender’s property to prevent against re-accumulation of animals, and mandatory psychological assessments and support.

Why People Accumulate Animals

The primary characteristic of hoarding disorder is defined as “persistent difficulties discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of their actual value.” The DSM‐5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition) definition of hoarding disorder specifically addresses animal hoarding, while suggesting that it may be a special manifestation of the disorder.

Animal hoarding is usually accompanied by a history of disordered or inadequate attachments to people. Most hoarders have psychological and social histories beginning in childhood that are chaotic and traumatic. Many people who exhibit hoarding behavior reportedly grew up in households with inconsistent parenting, in which animals may have been the only stable feature.  Some people who hazardously accumulate animals began collecting after a traumatic event or loss, while others see themselves as “rescuers” who save animals from lives on the street. In addition to these influences, biological factors, including genetics, neurophysiology, and infectious disease, have been suggested as possible explanations for this disorder.

Institutional Hoarding

Large-scale institutional hoarding by entities set up as legitimate rescues and shelters poses unique challenges for law enforcement and mental health professionals.  The entities may see themselves as being uniquely qualified to meet the needs of animals and lack any insight into the harm they cause, making them uncooperative when authorities attempt to intervene on behalf of the animals or the person themselves.

Here are several signs that a rescue group or shelter may involve hoarding or the mistreatment of animals:

  • 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 may make little effort to adopt animals out.
  • More animals are continually taken in, despite the poor condition of existing animals.
  • Legitimate shelters and rescue organizations may be viewed as an enemy. Animals may be received at a remote location (parking lot, street corner, etc.) rather than at the group's facilities to avoid visitors.
How You Can Help

Not everyone who has multiple animals has hoarding disorder. However, if you think someone you know is struggling with animal hoarding, here are some ways you can help:

  • A phone call may be the first step to getting everyone the help they need. Many communities now have Hoarding Task Forces with representatives from code enforcement, mental health, social services and animal care and control experienced in working collaboratively to respond to hoarding situations. If your area does not have such a group, call your local humane law enforcement department, police department, animal welfare organization or veterinarian to initiate the process.
  • Contact social service groups near you. Your local department of the aging, adult protective services, health departments and other mental health agencies may be able to provide help.
  • Reassure the person involved that it's okay to accept help. People who accumulate animals may be worried that their animals will be killed, or that they will never see them again. Assure them that the animals need urgent care, and that immediate action is necessary.
  • Volunteer your time. With the removal of animals from a hoarding situation, the burden on local shelters can be staggering. Volunteer to help clean cages, socialize animals, walk dogs and perform other such necessary duties at a shelter or rescue near you.
  • Keep in touch. It may be appropriate for animals to be spayed and neutered and returned to their home if an overwhelmed pet owner 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 person acquires new animals, help ensure that they are spayed/neutered and vaccinated.