There is little documentation of the clinical trajectory of animal hoarding, although anecdotal reports are available and one book provides an in-depth self-report.24 Steketee and colleagues8 examined the characteristics and antecedents of hoarding behaviors by interviewing 16 individuals who fit the criteria for animal hoarding and 11 individuals who owned many animals but did not meet hoarding criteria. Both groups comprised mainly white, middle-aged women who owned an average of 31 animals. Interestingly, individuals in both the hoarding and nonhoarding groups reported stressful childhood and adult life events as well as strong feelings about animals, such as urges to rescue, take care of, and be close to them. However, those who hoarded animals more often attributed human characteristics to animals and reported having had more problems with early attachments to caregivers and chaotic childhood environments. They also had more dysfunctional current relationships and mental health concerns. This report and clinical impressions suggest the following recurring themes among individuals with animal-hoarding disorder:
• Unshakable belief that they are saving, rescuing, or caring for their animals, which they see as being well and happy
• Profound compulsion to maintain or increase the collection of animals despite ample evidence of their failure to provide adequate care
• Childhood history of parents who were unstable, neglectful, abusive, absent, and/or inconsistent, often with chaotic, transient lifestyles
• Difficulty in establishing and maintaining stable interpersonal relationships as an adult
• Trauma in childhood and/or adulthood: often multiple, severe traumatic events, such as sexual abuse or assault, parental abandonment, or death or unexpected loss of loved ones
Unfortunately, there are no articles that describe the clinical characteristics of animal hoarders based on formal psychological/psychiatric evaluations. Nonetheless, these themes suggest that information about the human-animal bond may provide a starting point for understanding the development of animal-hoarding disorder.
Nathanson and Patronek25 have proposed an attachment-based explanatory model. Consistent with this approach, a psychodynamic theory proposed by Brown26-28 suggests explanations for the underpinnings of a “normal” human-animal bond and shows how these concepts may be relevant when the bond goes awry, as occurs in animal hoarding. Brown grounds her theory in the well-established importance of attachment security during development and the knowledge that when needs are not met during this critical period, particularly when accompanied by trauma, disorders of the self and dysfunctional attachment styles can result.
Attachment to companion animals can be profound, even for nonhoarding pet owners. Individuals who hoard animals show difficulty in letting go of them, even after they are dead. Their attachments are rigid and extreme, frequently at the expense of the well-being of the animals. Brown suggests that in animal-hoarding disorder, companion animals provide critical self-object functions, even into adulthood. Accordingly, reliance on an animal(s) can become intense and crucial to a person’s sense of well-being, with loss or potential loss of the animal(s) creating a sense of fragmentation, disintegration, and depression.
Many aspects of Brown’s hypothesis are also consistent with Flores’s29 framing of addiction as having its roots in attachment disorder, whereby the addictive behavior represents attempts at self-repair. Indeed, in “People Who Hoard Animals,” similarities in animal hoarding and addictive behavior were noted.1 The powerful positive feedback persons with animal-hoarding disorder may receive from their imagined role as animal caregiver is consistent with this approach and may explain what drives the hoarding behavior.
Building on this work, Patronek and Weiss30 explored the application of Allen and Fonagy’s31 work on mentalization theory as a way to further understand the various features of animal hoarding. Mentalization has been described as a form of emotional knowledge that involves being able to appreciate the reality of others and as a dynamic skill that is compromised by intense emotions associated with attachment relationships.31-34 Allen35 describes how adults with a history of childhood attachment trauma fail to understand how others (people and animals) think and feel. Impaired mentalization may be one mechanism that helps maintain hoarding behavior.30 Although problems in mentalization in persons with animal-hoarding disorder remain to be examined, the possibility of deficits in this area has important implications for therapy.
Dr Frost is Harold and Elsa Siipola Israel Professor or Psychology at Smith College, Northampton, Mass. Dr Patronek is Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University, North Grafton, Mass. Dr Arluke is Professor of Sociology at Northeastern University, Boston. Dr Steketee is Professor in the School of Social Work at Boston University. The authors report no conflicts of interest concerning the subject matter of this article.
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