Pilot interviews by HARC are consistent with the attachment model in finding that childhood experiences of abuse, neglect or extreme instability in the family may play a role in the development of hoarding. In several cases, animals served as stable fixtures in otherwise chaotic homes. Perhaps, in this context, animals serve an emotionally comforting role for vulnerable individuals, and attachments normally reserved for people are transferred to emotionally safer animals.
The finding that most people with this problem tend to be older and female (Patronek, 1999) suggests a developmental and gender-role link that may also have to do with feelings of vulnerability. Most of the people interviewed as part of the HARC project were relatively isolated and socially anxious, perhaps causing interactions with animals to be more comfortable than interactions with people. In these cases, animals may come to replace people in the hoarder's social world, which is consistent with the tendency observed among those interviewed to maintain their living spaces more like animal pens than human homes. This may suggest a disturbance in the way human attachments are formed.
Beliefs about the nature and function of possessions are another function of this model (Frost and Hartl, 1996), with a central belief being the hoarder's responsibility not to waste or misuse the possession. We suspect that a similar belief is prominent among people who hoard animals. Specifically, our preliminary findings suggest that people who hoard animals often believe they have a special gift for communicating or empathizing with animals, and that this is their life's mission (i.e., responsibility).
Some hoarders also express the need to maintain control over possessions. This results in increasing isolation and suspiciousness of others. We hypothesize a similar need for control among animal hoarders.
Like people who hoard possessions, animal hoarders often lack insight into the problematic nature of their behavior. A common and peculiar characteristic of people who hoard animals is a persistent and powerful belief that they are providing proper care for their animals, despite clear evidence to the contrary. In some cases, the home environment is so seriously impaired that the house must be torn down (Patronek, 1999). Careful assessment is needed to determine if this reflects a delusional disorder or overvalued ideation in the context of OCD. Delusional levels of paranoia regarding the actions and intentions of animal control officers frequently accompany this irrational belief.
Hoarders often cope with their behavioral deficits by avoiding them as much as possible. By saving things, the uncomfortable process of decision making is avoided, as well as the distress that accompanies discarding a cherished possession (Frost and Gross, 1993). Beliefs about responsibility and control and feelings of loss are never challenged by discarding and thus become rigidified. Likewise, animal hoarders may avoid uncomfortable decisions about turning away strays or treating sick animals by ignoring the problem or convincing themselves the animal is well. Similarly, dead animals are sometimes left to lie, perhaps to avoid feeling upset, guilty or responsible for the death. Thus, avoidance of discomfort may play an important role in the delusional features and possibly in other symptoms of pathological animal collecting.
Treatments for Animal Hoarding
To date, no research has addressed strategies for resolving cases of animal hoarding. What is clear is that adjudication of cases rarely alters the behavior. Until models for this behavior are established and tested, our understanding of this problem will be limited. Like many psychological conditions, the causes of animal hoarding are probably multiple and, therefore, assessment of emotions, behavior and thoughts must be multifaceted to point the way toward successful treatment.
For example, individuals with delusional thinking about their animals may benefit from relevant medications. Those with extreme attachment to their animals are likely to require long-term treatments and probably alternative sources of emotional connectedness. It is unclear whether those who hold strong beliefs about euthanasia and their perceived mission to save animals will be dissuaded from their convictions. Alternatives may be to forcibly limit their access to animals to prevent future problems, while addressing other features that lead to inadequate care of existing animals.