Animal-rescue workers have seen it all: the ritual storage of pet carcasses in basements and freezers; feces and garbage piled so high that occupants can barely get from room to room.
The homes of animal hoarders - -people who accumulate large numbers of animals and often fail to care for them properly -- reflect a reality seemingly unknown to the public: This eccentric behavior may in fact be a mental illness.
"Animal hoarding is a human problem as much as it is an animal problem," says Gary Patronek, V.M.D., president of the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (HARC), a joint venture of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and schools including Harvard Medical School and Tufts University. "Unfortunately, it's been dealt with almost exclusively as an animal problem."
The term "animal hoarding" was coined within the last five years. In one of the first comprehensive studies of this disorder, recently published in the journal Health and Social Work, researchers document similarities between animal hoarding and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), in which objects are often hoarded. "There appear to be more similarities than differences between OCD hoarding and animal hoarding," says Patronek, who is also an assistant professor of veterinary medicine at Tufts. "The interaction between an animal and a person just adds a level of intensity that doesn't exist with a pile of newspapers." Animal hoarders may threaten to kill themselves or others if their animals are removed. "They use the animals to fulfill their emotional needs, but at the same time, they're denying the animals' needs," adds Patronek.
Psychologists also suspect a link between animal hoarding and delusional and attachment
disorders, because hoarders' devotion to animals is often stronger than any human bond.
Most of the 71 subjects studied by Patronek met criteria for self-neglect. In more than half the cases, hoarders lived with elderly people, children or disabled individuals, many of whom were also neglected or abused.
The majority of the hoarders studied were women, and 72 percent were single, widowed or divorced, with a median age of 55. But the stereotype of the elderly "cat lady" is inaccurate. Almost half the subjects were employed, some in professions as common as teaching or real estate. Patronek notes that four veterinarians in a separate study also met the criteria for animal hoarding.
The HARC-funded study found cats were hoarded most often, followed by dogs, birds, reptiles, small mammals, horses, cattle, sheep and goats. In all the households, objects such as newspapers, books, clothing or garbage were also amassed, and the animals were often meticulously preserved after death. In one home, 918 animals were kept in squalor.
Patronek says that as many as 2,000 animal-hoarding cases are reported annually in the United States, but he believes the number of existing cases is much higher.