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A brief overview of animal hoarding

In a previous blog, I briefly examined pathological hoarding. One very specific type of hoarding is animal hoarding (typically defined as having a higher number of pets than is normal to have and failing to look after them properly). In a 2006 issue of Veterinary Medicine, Dr Gary Patronek (Tufts University, U.S.) defined animal hoarding as: “Pathological human behaviour that involves a compulsive need to obtain and control animals, coupled with a failure to recognize their suffering.” According to a recent literature review led by Dr. Albert Pertusa, this sub-type of hoarding has been defined as the accumulation of a large number of animals along with a:

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• Failure to provide minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, and veterinary care.

• Failure to act on the deteriorating condition of the animals (including disease, starvation or death) and the environment (severe overcrowding, extremely unsanitary conditions).

• Lack of awareness of the negative effects of the collection on their own health and wellbeing and on that of other family members.

Animal hoarders often live in severe domestic squalor and live in more unsanitary conditions than other types of hoarder (although some other types of disorder such as Diogenes Syndrome—also known as senile squalor syndrome—is characterized by extreme self-neglect, apathy, domestic squalor, social withdrawal, compulsive hoarding of rubbish, and lack of shame). It is common for the houses of animal hoarders to be filled with animal faecal waste, and it is not unusual to find the decomposing remains of dead animals. The animals are often left to reproduce at will as animal hoarders do not typically get their pets spayed or neutered. Sick animals are typically left to die and rot. A 2009 study by Dr Gary Patronek and Jane Nathanson in Clinical Psychology Review examined the living areas of 49 animal hoarders. They reported that four out of five living areas were “heavily littered with trash and garbage” (78 percent), and that in just under a half there was “profuse urine or feces in the living spaces” (45 percent).

One very key difference between animal and non-animal hoarders is that animal hoarding may involve animal cruelty. Dr. Frank Ascione defines animal cruelty as a socially unacceptable behavior that intentionally causes unnecessary pain, suffering, or distress to and/or death of an animal. Ascione believes that animal neglect falls within this definition and that therefore animal hoarders are guilty of animal cruelty. However, some researchers claim that the animal cruelty is not deliberate as the compulsive hoarding is underpinned by some kind of mental disorder.

Many animal hoarders are known to hoard other items and objects, and therefore some experts in the area (such as Patronek and Nathanson) suggest that animal hoarding is a special manifestation of compulsive hoarding. There is also some research that suggests that animal hoarding follows more conventional hoarding. However, animal hoarders share many of the same characteristics as those with Diogenes Syndrome. It has also been suggested that animal hoarders had very controlling parents, come from backgrounds that were chaotic and/or deprived in childhood (and sometimes described as scary and frightening), have psychological issues and problems surrounding emotional attachments, and often attribute human characteristics to the animals they own. Another seemingly common theme is that of physical and/or psychological loss. For animal hoarders, losing a possession is for them like losing a close friend or family member. It has also been claimed that some animal hoarders are often incapable of looking after and caring for themselves (let alone animals—particularly if there are so many of them). 

Colin Berry and colleagues, writing in an overview on animal hoarding for the journal Animal Law cited a 2002 review by Arnold Arluke and reported:


“Arnold Arluke analyzed one hundred articles about animal hoarding. Arluke suggests that, rather than presenting a realistic picture of animal hoarding that captures the complexity of the issue, the media presents animal hoarding in a stream of different emotional themes. While drawing the reader’s attention, these themes are more likely to elicit revulsion, sympathy, or humor from the reader rather than understanding of the hoarding issues themselves. Arluke concludes that these emotional themes ‘present an inconsistent picture of animal hoarding that can confuse readers about the nature and significance of this behavior.’ Portraying hoarders’ stories in this light can cause the public to be sympathetic and even supportive of the hoarder and her actions. Some hoarders even receive donations or offers of more animals”.

In the same paper, Berry and colleagues also noted that in terms of demographics, empirical studies have found that animal hoarders are typically middle-aged or older females who are often disabled, retired, or unemployed, living alone in homes without working appliances. The animals that are most likely to be hoarded are cats (the highest number they came across being owned was 400) and dogs (the highest number owned being 218). They also noted that numerous psychological models have been proposed to explain animal hoarding, including focal delusion, addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), zoophilia, and dementia. Although there is no consensus, the conceptualizing of animal hoarding as a form of OCD appears to be the most popular explanation (although this does not appear to explain all cases). According to Karen Cassiday, no-one knows what the prevalence of animal hoarders is within any population although press reports over the last decade have quintupled. Whatever the prevalence, animal hoarding is an area that needs further investigation.

References and further reading

Arluke, A. et al. (2002). Press reports of animal hoarding. Society and Animals, 113, 130-32.

Ascione, F. (1993). Children who are cruel to animals: A review of research and implications for developmental psychopathology. Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, 6, 226-247.

Berry, C., Patronek, G. & Lockwood, R. (2005). Long-term outcomes in animal hoarding cases. Animal Law, 11, 167-194.

Cassiday, K.L. (undated). Animal hoarding: An overlooked and misunderstood problem. Located at: http://www.ocdchicago.org/images/uploads/pdf/Cassiday_-_Animal_Ho...

Patronek, G. J., & Nathanson, J. N. (2009). A theoretical perspective to inform assessment and treatment strategies for animal hoarders. Clinical Psychology Review, 29, 274−281.

Pertusa, A., Frost, R.O., Fullana, M.A., Samuels, J., Steketee, G., Tolin, D., Saxena, S., Leckman, J.F., Mataix-Cols, D. (2010). Refining the diagnostic boundaries of compulsive hoarding: A critical review. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 371-386.

Reinisch, A.I. (2008). Understanding the human aspects of animal hoarding. Canadian Veterinary Journal, 49, 1211-1214.

Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit in the Psychology Division at Nottingham Trent University (UK).

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