Characteristics of Animal Hoarding and How to Recognize It in Your Community

Roxanne Hawn

The practice of animal hoarding is a danger not only to the safety and happiness of pets, but also to the community in which the hoarding occurs. Toward end of the 20th century, animal welfare professionals, mental health experts, veterinarians, and other animal lovers began looking seriously at animal hoarding. Among other things, they wanted to describe and classify the behavior in hopes of finding treatments to help those individuals affected by the behavior – and, in turn, save the lives of animals. Nearly 60% of animal hoarding cases are considered “repeat offenders” who have experienced treatment or intervention of some type in the past.

Here are some insights into what researchers have found and ways to spot hoarding situations in your community.

Hoarding Conditions

The public tends to think that animal hoarding only occurs with hundreds of animals, similar to many stories seen on the news. It’s possible, however, for similar behaviors and outcomes to affect homes with fewer animals if the level of care and condition of the animals are deteriorating. One person may easily live with a dozen or more animals who are healthy and happy while another person might be overwhelmed by three or four.

The working definition of hoarding includes these factors:

  • Failing to provide minimal standards of care (food, water, sanitation, veterinary care)
  • Failing to act on the deterioration of the home environment and animals’ condition
  • Negative affects on people and animals in the home

It is very common for individuals who show hoarding behaviors to become unaware of the degree to which care has deteriorated. They may be unaware of an animal’s needs and claim conditions are “not that bad,” or simply refuse to acknowledge signs of physical or mental distress in animals. During studies of hoarding behaviors, researchers have found that many people will develop rationalizations for their behavior.

Hoarding Characteristics

Early studies did find that hoarding behaviors happened most often in women (76%) and in people over age 60 (46%). Cats are the most common animals kept in large numbers in hoarding cases (65%). However, officials investigate cases of hoarding in people of all ages, incomes, locations, and professions.

About half of the time, individuals with hoarding tendencies live alone. It’s interesting to note that while social isolation is common it seems the isolation is a result of the hoarding situation, not a cause of it.

One psychiatric study of nine women with animal hoarding behaviors reported the women believed they had “special abilities to communicate or empathize with animals.” Some describe it as almost savior-like, where individuals believe they are the only one with the ability to care for the animals. Researchers also found that the role of animal caretaker also played a large role in the individual’s sense of identity.

In addition, it’s common to see hoarding behaviors in individuals with unstable or “broken” childhoods in which animals played a significant role in the child’s life. This shaky start may be why individuals with animal hoarding behaviors often view the world as a hostile place for people and animals.

A growing number of hoarding cases come from situations of animal rescue gone overboard. And, I don’t just mean individuals rescuing too many animals, but official non-profit animal rescues which turn into hoarding situations. Some estimates put rescue and shelter hoarding at 25% of new cases reported annually in the Unites States.

Hoarding Causes

Psychiatric researchers have tried to fit animal hoarding into existing disorders, including delusions, dementia, addiction, attachment, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorders. If mental health professionals diagnose a person with these or other disorders, they won’t necessary diagnose the hoarding disorder separately but attribute it to these other causes.

Studies have compared the behaviors of people who hoard objects and those who hoard animals. For example, both frequently result in cluttered, disorganized, and dysfunctional home situations – though animal hoarding is much more likely to result in squalid home conditions. Among the differences:

  • People who hoard objects often keep a wide collection of items, but people who hoard animals tend to concentrate on a single species - typically cats or dogs.
  • Object hoarding often starts at a young age, but animal hoarding typically appears later in life. This may simply be a result of children not having the control or resources to keep animals on their own.

There is one theory that looks for possible triggers for animal hoarding, such as the end of an important adult relationship, major health problems, or other traumatic event.

Hoarding Signs

If you’re active in a greater community of animal lovers, watch for these signs that someone you know may be developing hoarding behaviors:

  • Acting secretive, suspicious, or even paranoid about other people, local pet regulations, or pet adoption organizations
  • Always meeting you somewhere other than their home
  • Thriving on pet-related dramas or expressing a need for a “caregiver’s high” or savior role in pet’s lives
  • Complaining of sudden onset of health issues in pets associated with unclean conditions (fleas, breathing problems, intestinal parasites, etc.)
  • Visiting many veterinarians in many different locations for the same services
  • Talking about many new pets that never seem to make it to their senior years
  • Displaying an unusually strong aversion to euthanasia, even in dire medical cases
  • Showing signs of self-neglect (diet, cleanliness, sleep)

Have you ever suspected a friend or family member was hoarding animals? What tipped you off? What did you do about it?

Resources

Arluke A, et al. Press Reports of Animal Hoarding. Society of Animals, 10, 2, 2002.

Frost RO, et al. A Comparison of Object and Animal Hoarding. Depress Anxiety. 2011 October 3; 28(10): 885-891.

Nathanson JN. Animal hoarding: slipping into the darkness of comorbid animal and self-neglect. J Elder Abuse Negl. 2009 Oct:21(4):307-34.

Neziroglu F, et al. Compulsive hoarders: how do they differ from individuals with obsessive compulsive disorder. Psychiatry Res. 2012 Nov 30;200(1):35-40.

Patronek G, Weiss K. Animal hoarding: a neglected problem at the intersection of psychiatry, veterinary medicine and law. Findings from the Henderson House Workgroup.

Patronek G. Hoarding of Animals: An Under-Recognized Public Health Problem in a Difficult-to-Study Population. Public Health Reports. Jan / Feb 1999. Vol 114: 81-87 Frost R. People Who Hoard Animals. Psychiatric Times. April 1, 2000.

Patronek G, et al. The Problem of Animal Hoarding. Municipal Lawyer. May / June 2001: 6-9, 19.

Vaca-Guzman M, and Arluke A. Normalizing passive cruelty: The excuses and justifications of animal hoarders. Anthrozoos. 18(4). 2005: 338-357.

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