Many characteristics of animal hoarding are very similar to those exhibited by hoarders of inanimate objects - accumulation of large quantity of objects and/or trash that render living spaces non-functional; refusal to discard; living in clutter and squalor; denial of the conditions; reluctance to seek or accept help; alienation from family and friends, etc. The pathological behavior of object hoarding is well described in the psychological literature, including a strong association with a variety of mental health problems, including but not limited to OCD. But even with this well-established literature, the role of object hoarding as a symptom for any given mental health diagnosis is currently under great debate as psychologists prepare for the release of DSM-5. There is growing awareness that object hoarding is associated with a wide variety of clincial diagnoses besides OCD. In 2011, a paper was published in the journal Depression and Anxiety contrasting the differences between object hoarding and animal hoarding.
Animal hoarding has important differences with OCD-related hoarding, as it does not seem to share the same array of repetitive compulsive behaviors such as washing or checking compulsions, or the same issues with order. Hoarders also have much greater impairment of insight, potentially reaching delusional levels of impairment, compared to OCD patients. By comparison, there is considerable overlap of hoarding with impulse control disorders. There is a growing consensus that hoarding has more differences than similarities with OCD, and psychologists are currently considering whether hoarding should be a separate disorder in DSM-5 (DSM is the manual of psychological disorders recognized by the medical community). A June 2010 in-depth review by eminent psychologists explains the differences between OCD and hoarding, and suggests there is sufficient evidence for creation of a new disorder, provisionally called hoarding disorder, in DSM-5.
The stereotype of an animal hoarder is that of a single, older woman, living alone and socioeconomically disadvantaged. There is support in existing data for that broad generalization. However, it is important to recognize that hoarding knows no age, gender or socioeconomic boundaries. It has been observed in men and women, young and old, married as well as never married or widowed, and in people with professional or white collar jobs. There have even been hoarders among human health professionals, veterinarians and veterinary technicians. It is not uncommon for hoarders to be secretive, living essentially a "double life" at work versus at home. Our research to date, derived from dozens of clinical interviews by psychologists and social workers with hoarders, interactions with hoarders through law enforcement and court-ordered assessments, interviews of family members, and analysis of case reports by social scientists, suggests that, similar to object hoarding, animal hoarding is likely a final common pathway from a variety of traumatic experiences which result in dysfunctional attachment styles to people and lead to compulsive and addictive behavior. The diagram to the right shows our current working model of animal hoarding.
Animal hoarder's impaired judgment and actions, or failures to act, may arise from a variety of factors. These include difficulties understanding relevant information about animals’ needs, inaccurate appreciation of a situation and its consequences, being unable to reason about treatment options and alternative courses of action, faulty self-governance, psychological defenses and behaviors in response to stress, as well as magical thinking, lack of insight and other cognitive distortions. When these impairments become associated with functional deficits (including failure to provide adequate food, water, proper sanitation or necessary medical care, and failure to recognize and attend to fundamental behavioral and mental needs of animals), incompetent care occurs and animal suffering results.
Almost every conceivable type of animal can be a victim of hoarding. Reports have documented a wide range of companion animals such as cats, dogs, rabbits, ferrets, birds, and guinea pigs, to farm animals (horses, sheep, goats, chickens, cattle), to exotic and sometimes dangerous wildlife. Domestic species are the largest group of animals represented in hoarding cases, most likely because of availability and relative ease of care. Cats are very common and contribute to the stereotype. They are easily available in any community and easier to conceal than dogs. This ease of availability and concealment could explain the high frequency of cat hoarding compared to some other species.
It is not uncommon for multiple species to be present, although in most situations, hoarders tend to concentrate on one species. Our research has not yet examined what psychological factors lead to individual species preferences in hoarding situations, or answered the question as to whether or not there are any differences among the people who hoard different species.
Animal hoarding is a complex behavior that results from a variety of psychological and behavioral deficits that may limit a person's ability to care for themselves or others. Although hoarding may start out as a seemingly benevolent mission to save animals, eventually the needs of the animals become lost to the person's needs for control. The resulting compulsive care giving is pursued to fulfill unmet human needs, while the real needs of the animals are ignored or disregarded. Sometimes hoarders act as individuals, and other times they masquerade as animal rescue activities. They should never be confused for these legitimate and worthwhile efforts.
Any legitimate shelter, rescue or sanctuary puts the needs of the animals first, recognizes when capacity to provide care is exceeded, and takes the required steps (stopping intake, increasing adoption, increasing staff or resources) in order to provide proper care. Two model sanctuaries, Best Friends Sanctuary and Farm Sanctuary, show what is required to put the needs of animals first in a care giving setting. Both organizations encourage visitors, volunteers, and transparency. The diagram at the right illustrates the difference between competent care giving and substandard care.
Several sanctuary associations publish codes of ethics, and the Association of Shelter Veterinarians is developing guidelines for standards of care. The Cat Fancier's Association, a national trade group for cat breeders, advises breeders who may be facing difficulty providing proper care to contact them for help.
The basic features of animal hoarding (failure to provide adequate food and water, failure to provide necessary veterinary care to treat a disease or injury, failure to provide a sanitary environment) are prohibited either explicitly or implicitly by the animal cruelty laws in every state. Two states (Illinois and Hawaii), explicitly mention animal hoarding in their cruelty statutes. Unfortunately, because animal cruelty laws were originally written in the 1800's to discourage and punish overworking of individual horses and livestock, they may not be optimal for promoting optimal care of populations of companion animals. Thus, there may be considerable deterioration in quality of life and animal suffering before it is recognized that cruelty exists.
With a growing consensus that proper care and prevention of cruelty requires more than simply providing food and water, this may simply reflect our inexperience interpreting the intent of cruelty statutes in light of modern sensibilities. The USDA, which regulates commercial animal dealers, has acknowledged that suffering encompasses a broader range of conditions. They define suffering as “any condition that causes pain or distress. Examples [include]: animals with serious medical problems that are not receiving adequate veterinary care; animals without adequate food or water; animals exposed to temperature extremes without adequate shelter or bedding; and animals held in enclosures that are filthy. Animals do not need to be in jeopardy of dying to be in a state of suffering” (AC Policy No. 8, May 8, 2001). This is discussed more fully under Animal Welfare.
Explanatory model: This diagram explains our current thinking about how animal hoarding arises and its relationship with trauma and attachment. Enlarge...
Animal hoarding is not about animal sheltering, rescue, or sanctuary, and should not be confused with these legitimate efforts to help animals. It IS about satisfying a human need to accumulate animals and control them, and this need supersedes the needs of the animals involved.
Animal hoarding is a community problem. It is cruel to animals, can devastate families, be associated with elder abuse, child abuse, and self-neglect, and be costly for municipalities to resolve. Without appropriate post-intervention treatment, recidivism approaches 100%. Increased awareness, leading to more comprehensive long-term interventions, is needed.
Details for over 1700 hoarding cases are archived on the website Pet-Abuse.com. This site provides a searchable national database for all types of animal abuse.