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.