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Over 600 animals were found in the home of a Los Angeles woman, arrested on suspicion of animal cruelty. Some of the animals were already dead and some so ill they had to be euthanized by Animal Services. The woman insisted the animals were well-cared for and her home was clean, despite physical evidence to the contrary. She refused to voluntarily surrender the animals to animal control. Her fear? They would be euthanized. This woman could be described as an animal hoarder.
According to Gini Barrett, director of the American Humane Association Western Regional Office (Tamaki, 1997), animal hoarders are well-known to animal care professionals. "Collectors exist in almost every community, large or small, rural or urban. They are in a state of denial that prevents them from seeing the filth or understanding their animals are sick, dying or dead. They need help," she said.
The Symptoms of Animal Hoarding
While animal care specialists recognize these people are in need of psychiatric help, almost no psychiatric literature exists on this topic. The existing literature on the hoarding of animals by human beings has been written by officials of the Humane Society of the United States and animal shelter operators (e.g., Lockwood and Cassidy, 1988). Only one case series appears in medical or psychological literature. Worth and Beck (1981) interviewed multiple pet owners identified from complaint files of the New York City department of health and animal control agency and from their own personal acquaintance. Most of those studied collected dogs, or cats; men more often collected dogs, and women more often collected cats. Nearly two-thirds of their sample were women, and 70% were unmarried. Social isolation was common but appeared to result from the hoarding behavior rather than causing it. Most participants reported their collecting started in childhood. Many had no telephone, public utilities or plumbing, and many hoarded inanimate objects as well.
The authors speculated that their participants adopted a parental role with respect to their animals. This resulted in reluctance to remove any animals, even when adequate homes were available. Many of the collectors emphasized that their animals gave them "unquestioning and uncritical love." They tended to personalize and anthropomorphize their pets and viewed themselves as rescuers of suffering or unloved animals (Worth and Beck, 1981).
More recently, Patronek (1999) surveyed animal shelter operators about their experiences with people who hoard animals. Detailed information was obtained on 54 cases. An animal hoarder was defined as "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 well-being." These findings support some of Worth and Beck's conclusions. Most cases were female (76%), a large proportion (46%) were 60 years of age or older; most were single, divorced or widowed; and almost half lived alone. The most common animals involved were cats (65%) and dogs (60%). Based on the data collected, Patronek estimated that there are 700 to 2,000 new cases of animal hoarding every year in the United States.
The conditions described were fairly consistent in both studies. Dead or sick animals were discovered in 80% of reported cases, yet in nearly 60% of cases the hoarder would not acknowledge the problem (Patronek, 1999). In 69% of cases, animal feces and urine accumulated in living areas, and over one-quarter of the hoarders' beds were soiled with feces or urine. Hoarders' justifications for their behavior included an intense love of animals, the feeling that animals were surrogate children, the belief that no one else would or could take care of them, and the fear that the animals would be euthanized. As in Worth and Beck's (1981) report, a significant number of hoarders had nonfunctional utilities (i.e., bathroom plumbing, cooking facilities, heat, refrigeration and electricity).
The resolution of these cases was often protracted and difficult, and the hoarder frequently resumed the behavior. Sixty percent of the hoarders studied were repeat offenders. Many of the caseworkers expressed frustration with the perceived lack of cooperation from public and mental health professionals (Patronek, 1999).