Many people collect things: antiques, stamps, or coins. Not unusual. Animal hoarders, sometimes known as “gatherers,” are people who hoard animals beyond their space, time, and financial ability to cope. Animal hoarding transcends simply having more than the typical number of animals. The job definition of a hoarder is someone who:

  • Accumulate a large number of animals.
  • It does not provide minimum standards of nutrition, sanitation, and veterinary care.
  • It does not act on the deteriorating condition of animals (including disease, hunger and even death) or the environment (severe overcrowding and unsanitary conditions).
  • He does not act or recognize the negative.

We have all seen news reports showing dozens of sick cats being pulled out of a “garbage house.” We wonder how it started and how things got to that point. Dr. Gary Patronek of Tufts University has begun a study with professors at other universities to better understand how and why people go from being animal lovers to animal abusers. Almost 2,000 cases are reported each year at the national level. From numerous case studies, Dr. Patronek found some very interesting statistics:

  • The majority (76%) of the hoarders were women and 54% were under the age of 60.
  • 70% were single.
  • The animals most frequently involved were cats (65%), dogs (60%) and birds (11%).
  • There was a median of 39 animals per case, but many exceeded 100 animals.
  • In 80% of the cases, animals were dead or in poor condition, and in 58% of these, the hoarder did not recognize that there was a problem.
  • 60% of the accumulators studied were repeat offenders.

A common and peculiar characteristic of people who hoard animals is the persistent and powerful belief that they are providing proper care for their animals, despite clear evidence to the contrary. This is true even in cases where the house is so dirty and neglected that it must be demolished. It has been reasonably argued that, in some cases, inanimate object hoarders have suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), a recognized psychological disorder. Recent studies link animal hoarding to OCD. Two main characteristics of OCD: People with this syndrome experience an overwhelming sense of responsibility for imagined harm to animals and take unrealistic steps to fulfill this responsibility.

Often times, the mere sight of an animal in need of a home causes such a powerful emotional bond that the animal should be acquired. Once acquired, the animal receives very little attention to its most basic needs, because attention has already been paid to the next ‘rescue’ effort. There is a reluctance to give up any animal, even when responsible care homes are available.

Our understanding of this problem is still very limited. While animal care specialists acknowledge that these people need psychiatric help, there is almost no psychiatric literature on this topic. Researchers are trying to convince public officials that mental health treatment for offenders would be more helpful than criminal prosecution, as punishment has not been shown to prevent recurrence.

Not all people who live with multiple animals are hoarders. Many people are capable of caring for multiple animals, and many people do legitimate rescue work outside of their homes. We simply must be aware of the existence of this problem, and be careful not to allow those who may be acquiring animals for the wrong reasons, or in the wrong situations. Remember that when it comes to animals, “Love is NOT all you need.”

Special thanks and appreciation to Dr. Gary Patronek, VMD, Ph.D., Director of the Tufts University Center for Animals, for his permission to share the results of his studies.

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