To date, information about animal hoarders has been provided secondhand by officers and caseworkers investigating these individuals. Only one study has collected information directly from the animal hoarders. To address this problem, the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (HARC) was formed in conjunction with the Tufts Center for Animals and Public Policy, Boston University, Northeastern University, Smith College and the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The first HARC project was to interview people who meet the definition of an animal hoarder as well as people who own multiple pets but do not show the lack of care of their animals that is characteristic of hoarders.
Of nine interviews conducted to date, seven subjects were true animal hoarders and two had multiple pets but no problems in caring for them. Reports from these individuals are consistent with much of the information in the Patronek (1999) and Worth and Beck (1981) studies. All nine interviewees were female and most were over 40 years old. Five lived alone, two lived with a husband, two with children and one lived with her mother. Most of those interviewed also hoarded objects, causing their homes to be cluttered and disorganized. Other characteristics included the beliefs that they had special abilities to communicate or empathize with animals, that animal control officials failed to recognize the care the interviewees give to their animals and that saving animals was their life's mission. Typically, animals played significant roles in their childhoods, which were often characterized by chaotic, inconsistent and unstable parenting.
Explanatory Models for Animal Hoarding
Several psychiatric models have been suggested for problematic animal hoarding (Lockwood, 1994). The delusional model suggests that people who hoard animals suffer from a highly focused form of delusional disorder. Two pieces of anecdotal information support this model. First, in our pilot study, participants all firmly believed they had a special ability to communicate and/or empathize with animals. Furthermore, the hoarders insisted that their animals were healthy and well-cared for. This claim, in the midst of clear and immediate information to the contrary, suggests a belief system out of touch with reality. One interesting finding is that, outside the context of their relationship to their animals, many of these people appear reasonably normal and healthy.
Patronek (1999) suggested that animal hoarding may be a "warning sign for early stages of dementia," which would suggest a dementia model. This was based on the number of people who were placed in a residential facility or under guardianship (26%) and that the individuals showed no insight into the irrationality of their behavior. Furthermore, hoarding of inanimate objects occurs in about 20% of dementia cases (Hwang et al., 1998). There is little direct evidence for this model, however. It was not established whether institutional placement was due to dementia, and lack of insight is common in disorders other than dementia (e.g., obsessive-compulsive disorder or anorexia). Further, the hoarding of possessions is accompanied by an inability to recognize the problem (Frost and Steketee, 1998), yet our work does not show it to be closely associated with cognitive dysfunction.
Lockwood (1994) suggested an addictions model based on similarities to substance abuse, including a preoccupation with animals, denial of a problem, excuses for the behavior, isolation from society, claims of persecution, and neglect of personal and environmental conditions. Other evidence consistent with this model comes from research on impulse control problems. In particular, the hoarding of possessions is associated with several impulse control problems including compulsive shopping (Frost et al., 1998) and gambling (Meagher et al., 1999). Some animal hoarders report compulsive collecting of strays or shelter animals.
Small numbers of animal hoarders may be explained by a zoophilia model, in which animals serve as sexual gratification (Lockwood, 1994). Although in a few cases reported by the popular media collected animals were the objects of sexual activity, there is little evidence to support this model as a major determinant of this behavior.
Another possible model for animal hoarding is an attachment model in which the individual suffers from early developmental deprivation of parental attachment and is unable to establish close human relationships in adulthood. This situation may result from childhood experiences of absent, neglectful or abusive parents or caretakers. The chaotic households and inconsistent parenting observed in the HARC interviews, as well as the desire for unconditional love from animals described in Worth and Beck's report (1981), provide some support for this model. This model is also consistent with current theorizing about the hoarding of possessions.
Perhaps the most parsimonious model ties animal hoarding to OCD (Lockwood, 1994). Two major features are consistent with the OCD model. People with this syndrome appear to experience an overwhelming sense of responsibility for preventing imagined harm to animals, and they engage in unrealistic steps to fulfill this responsibility. OCD patients experience this same sense of excessive responsibility for preventing harm and engage in unrealistic ritualization to prevent it.