I was recently asked by the president of Homes for Endangered and Lost Pets (H.E.L.P.), an Illinois based animal rescue group, a series of questions pertaining to animal hoarding.
Do you have any theories on why animal hoarders tend to be middle aged or older females?
Symptoms of compulsive hoarding are believed to begin in childhood or adolescence and are usually chronic and progressive. Hoarding typically increases in severity with age. Results from studies suggest that hoarding behavior is a common behavior with elderly people with dementia although it is not understood why.
The stereotypic term "crazy cat lady" is used in a pejorative sense to classify an older, female animal hoarder and there is no research to support such correlation. Research on animal hoarding is lacking and there is not one plausible theory that suggests why older females tend to hoard animals more than men.
Can you characterize how a hoarder generally feels towards his or her animals?
People who hoard animals have a deep attachment to their pets. Usually the animals serve as a substitute for human-to-human relationships. A common trait among individuals who hoard animals is a history of interpersonal difficulties.
It is extremely difficult to let the pets go despite hazardous living conditions and pleas from family members and city officials. Animal hoarders typically have poor insight into the function of their behavior and struggle to comprehend that they are in fact neglecting their pets by their inability to provide proper care. Most animal hoarders experience a tremendous amount of grief when they lose their animals.
Research on animal hoarding indicates that recidivism among hoarders is high. Why do you think this is?
So often, well-intended therapists, concerned family members, and supportive clutter coaches will attempt to help by "getting right to business" with removing the animals. However, this approach often yields challenges in the long-term effectiveness of treatment and raises several treatment non-compliance issues. Removing animals and decreasing the compulsion to hoard are two important outcomes in treatment but in order to get to this goal, a framework for lasting change needs to be established first. Without ongoing therapy and support there is a higher risk for recidivism.
What type of treatment approach do you feel is most effective?
I believe a behavioral approach works best. Using an interpretation of exposure and ritual prevention tailor-made for the client is a solid start. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is an empirically-supported treatment for compulsive behaviors, and can support treatment for hoarding. Using ACT helps the hoarders apply and integrate acceptance and mindfulness-based concepts to decrease hoarding behaviors and increase living life according to their values.
If someone has a loved one that is hoarding animals, what general advice would you give them?
Shame, guilt, and embarrassment are emotions often associated with hoarding behavior and because of this individuals do not readily seek out treatment. It's important for loved ones to seek out the assistance of a licensed therapist before going in and removing the animals. Most hoarders experience anger, resentment, and may behave defiantly when loved ones try to help and having a professional will lessen the impact of these emotions. Also, it's important for loved ones to realize that hoarding animals is a behavioral disorder often related to OCD and psychological treatment is warranted.