Hoarding hundreds of pets is not just unhygienic, it’s a psychological disorder

More than a pet problem. Ikayama, CC BY-NC-SA

The broad category of hoarding has only recently been recognised as a psychiatric disorder. It first made an appearance in the 2013 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the global reference book of mental health. But while society seems to be aware of the problem of hoarding objects, animal hoarding, where dozens or hundreds of animals can be kept under bad and unsanitary conditions, remains under-recognised.

However, this is not because it is uncommon. Up to 2,000 new cases are estimated to appear every year in the US. And this is likely to be an underestimate, because there is a lack of public awareness that it is a condition and only very severe cases are identified.

This also means that very little research has been done on animal hoarding. Most has been done in the US by a group of experts called the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium. But interest in researching animal hoarding has been increasing, including two new studies published this year; one by myself and colleagues in Spain and another in Australia.

From this research, it is clear that this condition appears and has similarities across different cultures, but there are still many aspects of animal hoarding to uncover.

The symptoms

There are a number of symptoms, which when combined constitute an animal hoarding disorder. A prerequisite is having a large number of animals at home – we have seen cases of only ten animals, to people hoarding more than 500 in their homes. Sufferers are unable to provide the minimum standards of care for those animals and will deny or downplay the deplorable conditions they and their animals are living in.

This being such a new area of study, this is a very practical and descriptive definition of the disorder, which could change in the future when we know more about it. For example, the boundaries between functional and dysfunctional pet ownership are still not completely defined. Discovering these boundaries could lead to a different kind of definition and understanding of the problem.

Negative effects

However, if we take into account the current definition of animal hoarding, there are some key negative consequences of this psychiatric disorder. From the perspective of the animals, there can be severe welfare issues. Most of the animals found in animal hoarding cases are in deplorable conditions: sick, dirty, full of parasites and many dead animals can even be found when you enter an animal hoarder’s home.

Cases of animal hoarding can also lead to several public health issues in the surrounding environment including infestations of parasites, such as fleas and ticks, or environment toxicity, such as dangerous levels of ammonia from animal urine, in the air that people breath.

Then there are the hoarders themselves to think about. Animal hoarders live in the same unsanitary environment as their animals, maybe without being able to have a functional kitchen or even a clean bed to sleep.

Pining for freedom? Julicath, CC BY-NC-ND

The most common profile of an animal hoarder is a socially isolated, middle-aged or old woman who hoards cats or dogs – or both. However, men or even whole families, with children or other dependent relatives, can be animal hoarders or live in a hoarding situation. And not only dogs and cats are hoarded – other species that have been found include farm animals and reptiles.

From a health perspective, there is a way to go to understand what leads a person into these hopeless situations, where they are surrounded by dozens or even hundreds of animals and their faeces and urine. Early research shows that animal hoarding is often associated with attachment problems to other people, which leads to an excessive attachment to animals. This could be due to being a victim of neglect or abuse during childhood, as many of the known animal hoarders’ investigations indicated.

Animal hoarding sometimes appears alongside other mental disorders, like object hoarding or dementia. A common trait is the lack of insight or awareness in hoarders of their situation, and there can also be certain lack of empathy with other creatures.

Tackling the problem

Even though the exact cause of animal hoarding needs more analysis, the first steps for tackling this problem are broadly agreed on by those researching it. Earlier detection of cases could come from increasing public awareness of the problem, and a simple change in society’s perception of animal hoarding could save many animals’ lives and prevent severe human and public health consequences.

There also needs to be standardised policies for effective interventions when animal hoarding is identified. These need to respond to both the animals and the hoarder’s needs. Currently, only a few states in the US have policies in place to deal with the disorder.

It’s also important that those found hoarding animals are taken care of. At present, when a case is detected, the animals are removed but no attention is given to the person suffering. More often than not this person doesn’t realise that their animals are in poor health and are likely to soon start hoarding again. They need individual mental health treatment, as soon as possible, to prevent the usual evolution of a terrible and long-term condition.