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Hoarding: the overwhelmed care giver

31st July 2018

Hoarding: the overwhelmed care giver

The term ‘hoarding’ or ‘compulsive hoarding’ generally refers to the collecting of possessions that has become excessive or pathological.

Hoarding is common and, when experienced in its severest form, can prevent the individual from functioning normally and be of great distress to the sufferer, his or her family and society in general. Hoarding can be a symptom of a variety of psychiatric or neurological conditions, with various suggestions for explanatory models, including:

  • Delusional disorder – (belief system out of touch with reality)
  • Impulse control disorder – (akin to addiction/substance abuse)
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (hoarding of inanimate objects is a symptom of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder [DSM-IV])
  • Attachment model – early developmental deprivation with absent, neglectful, abusive parents; unable to establish close human relationships in adulthood.

There is, however, growing evidence to suggest that compulsive hoarding would be better classified as a stand-alone condition and therefore a diagnostic category of ‘hoarding disorder’ has been included in the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V).

The hoarding of animals (often in addition to objects) is of particular concern as it can cause extreme suffering to those involved. A definition of an animal hoarder is:

“Someone who accumulates a large number of animals; fails to provide minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation and veterinary care; and fails to act on the deteriorating condition of the animals (including disease, starvation and even death) or the environment (severely overcrowded and unsanitary conditions), or the negative impact of the collection on their own health and wellbeing.”
[Patronek (1999)]

It may be possible to look at the motivation behind hoarding of inanimate objects to acquire an insight into collectors of animals. People who hoard possessions frequently identify their possessions as central to their identity so that discarding one often produces grief and a sense of loss of part of themselves. Beliefs about responsibility and control and feelings of loss are never challenged by discarding and therefore become established as an entrenched core belief. Animal hoarders may never turn away stray animals or treat sick animals to avoid feeling guilty or upset. Similarly, dead animals are left to lie in the home, as the hoarders fail to face the truth. Avoidance of discomfort and a lack of culpability may play an important role in the delusional features and possibly the symptoms of pathological animal hoarding.

Research conducted by the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium in America has sub-categorised hoarders into more specific groups to assist in the guidance of intervention strategies, referring to three main categories: overwhelmed caregiver, rescuer hoarder and exploiter hoarder.

Extract from Animal Hoarding: What caseworkers need to know GJ Patronek VMD, PhD

Overwhelmed caregiver Rescuer hoarder Exploiter hoarder
Some awareness, more reality-based Mission leading to unavoidable compulsion Tends to have sociopathic characteristics
More passive acquisition Fear of death Lacks empathy for people or animals
Problems triggered by a change in circumstance More active vs. passive acquisition Indifferent to harm caused
Unable to problem-solve effectively S/he is the only one who can provide care Rejects outsiders concerns
Animals are family members Rescue-followed-by-adoption becomes rescue-only care Superficial charm and charisma
Likely to be socially isolated May have an extensive network of enablers Lacks guilt/remorse
Self-esteem linked to the role of caregiver Not as likely to live with the animals Manipulative and cunning
Fewer issues with authority Adopts the role of expert with the need to control

Common characteristics of animal hoarders

There are some characteristics common in all types of animal hoarders:-

  • They often hoard inanimate objects too so their properties may appear extremely cluttered with the contents partially or fully obscuring windows
  • They refer to their animals using anthropomorphic terms, for example, “my babies”, “they understand me” etc
  • They perceive themselves as rescuers
  • They have an intense love of animals
  • They feel that their care is unsurpassed and that “no-one else cares better”
  • They often have non-functional utilities (plumbing, heating, electricity) due to the lapsed payment of bills
  • Their childhood was characterised by chaotic, inconsistent, unstable parenting
  • They believe that they possess special abilities to communicate with animals
  • If they give up animals as a result of a formal intervention from the authorities they will accumulate more fairly soon afterwards

Consequences of animal hoarding

The consequences for cats that are involved in hoarding cases include:

  • Inter-cat and stress-related problems associated with social over-crowding, eg, urine spraying, inappropriate urination and defecation, inter-cat aggression
  • Disease associated with over-crowding/poor nutrition, eg, dental disease, cat ‘flu, ringworm, FelV, FIV, Coronavirus
  • Constantly increasing numbers due to indiscriminate breeding (cats are rarely neutered)
  • Congenital and hereditary diseases associated with inter-breeding
  • Lack of early socialisation leading to an inherent fear of human contact
  • Environmental health issue, eg, fleas, ringworm, chyletiella, faecal contamination, high levels of ammonia present

Judging the animal hoarder

If someone has been identified as a possible hoarder of animals then most people would make a judgement about that person as being mad (mentally ill), bad (criminal and cruel) or sad (a pathetic individual). However, judgements are rarely helpful in these cases where the ultimate goal has to be to prevent suffering in the animals and provide help, where accepted and needed, for the hoarder. Society has a duty of care to vulnerable people – family, friends, neighbours, animal charities and other social agencies all have a potential role to play in any positive and constructive intervention.

Is there a pathway to hoarding?

Unfortunately, multi-cat householders, if they do not adhere strictly to a specific number of cats, tend to attract more, often justifying the increase with the phrase “what difference does one more make?” Cats can arrive in various ways, for example, the owner may have a reputation locally as someone willing to take in unwanted cats. Strays, and even opportunistic cats that already have a carer, are often attracted to the territory of a large ‘colony’ in response to the availability of abundant supplies of food. Young females in the group become pregnant and the owner fails to seek or find homes that are ‘good enough’ for the resulting kittens, hence swelling the numbers further.

There comes a point where housing cats in sufficient numbers becomes detrimental to their physical and psychological health and an overwhelmed owner fails to monitor signs of stress or illness and therefore does not provide the adequate veterinary care. These are not necessarily cases of hoarding in the more generally understood sense but, should the owner develop mental illness or experience an emotional trauma, there is a possibility that they may continue to expand their colony and fail to notice or appreciate any resulting reduction in their general level of care.

The lack of adequate care for the animals is the key concern when identifying animal hoarders. Individuals may accumulate a number of cats but care for them to a high standard by providing veterinary care and ensuring all members are neutered or prevented from indiscriminate mating. Many breeders have numbers that could justify the concern of ‘hoarding’ but it is only when the animals suffer as a result that they may be classified as such.

Increased vigilance

The general public and professionals working in the pet care sector should all be vigilant and aware of the warning signs that could indicate a person has become an overwhelmed caregiver or hoarder. The person in question may feed local stray cats or feral colonies – there may be a large number of cats in the vicinity. The property may be in disrepair with rubbish outside and piled against the windows, there may be a strong smell coming from it and even large numbers of flies at the windows. The owner may be known to neighbours as ‘reclusive’ and generally reluctant to let anyone in the house.

Some signs are particularly relevant to those working in veterinary practice, for example, owners of multiple cats who no longer visit the veterinary practice or only infrequently for trauma or infectious disease issues. They may request medication without the practice of seeing the animal or be vague when questioned regarding the number of animals owned.

It is also apparent that private cat rescue centres or sanctuaries may fall victim to this problem so constant monitoring by the general public is also essential, particularly if viewing cats for potential adoption or relinquishing a cat for future rehoming. Any rescue organisation should be visited and investigated before handing in animals, at which time the animal quarters and the resident cats should be viewed. Any rehoming establishment should be able to answer routine questions about daily care and monitoring and provide statistics regarding the number of cats coming into the centre and those finding suitable homes.

Any concerns regarding the welfare of the animals in the care of any rescue facility or an individual should be raised with the appropriate authorities, in the UK this would be the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). The RSPCA’s role is to advise, assist and support, and liaise with the police and local authorities regarding any environmental health or social services involvement. Any concerns will be raised with the owner of the establishment or the individual and a notice of improvement may be served that is followed up after a reasonable period of time to ensure that the improvements have been carried out. If there is no improvement then animals will be removed from the premises and evidence gathered for potential prosecution if appropriate. In all cases the welfare of the animals is paramount and the RSPCA will do everything in their power to assist the individuals to make improvements and avoid any legal consequences.

Rehabilitation of cats signed over from hoarders

Legally animals remain the property of the owner in the UK and consent is even required before neutering can take place. Much of the RSPCA’s work involves offering assistance to individuals in this situation and attempting to prevent any further increase in numbers. However in the RSPCA document “The State of Animal Welfare in the UK 2005” it comments that “With the introduction of the Animal Welfare Act and the Welfare Offence (Clause 9), an RSPCA inspector will be able to consider taking action beyond just giving out advice, and before suffering or cruelty has occurred.”

When animals are signed over, many are considered to be unsuitable for re-homing due to disease or lack of habituation to a normal domestic home. In these cases, euthanasia is often considered to be the only practical option.

If consent is given to neuter and return, the cats then this is generally carried out by people experienced with feral cats, as the equipment and type of handling required is often similar to that needed for feral colonies. These experts also have good contacts with vets accustomed to the treatment of feral cats. Many rescue establishments are understandably reluctant to remove cats from hoarders except in extreme cases of suffering as there is rarely, if ever, room in shelters to accommodate an influx of such large numbers on a single occasion. As previously mentioned these cats are almost always difficult to re-home. There is sufficient argument to suggest that many should not be re-homed at all as this would undoubtedly cause unnecessary suffering to an individual deprived of early socialisation. Many cats born into the situation may also have learning and social difficulties caused by developmental problems in utero associated with the mother’s poor nutrition or high-stress levels during pregnancy.

However, there are always instances where the cats may benefit from re-homing and go on to lead normal lives as pet cats. Unfortunately, there are no specific criteria that indicate suitability and each situation must be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

Solutions to animal hoarding?

All hoarding cases deteriorate and numbers increase with time so the earlier positive intervention takes place, the more likely the situation is to be resolved satisfactorily. More publicity and more research are also required into this problem to find a treatment protocol for animal hoarders that takes into consideration any mental health issues; ideally, there should be a protocol that can be utilised before these situations become so severe that court action is necessary. Recidivism is seen to be a major problem so effective treatment of the hoarders themselves, practical advice and support is the only way forward to prevent further animal suffering.


For further information on this subject, visit the website of the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (HARC)

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