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The Reality of Animal Hoarding

Animal hoarders are not simply "crazy cat ladies"; they can cause real harm.

Key points

  • Over 250,000 animals in the U.S. are suffering from neglect or abuse caused by animal hoarding.
  • More than 70 percent of animal hoarders are women who are 55 or older and single, widowed, or divorced.
  • 80 percent of animal hoarders have diseased, dying, or dead animals on the premises.
  • Animal hoarding may be related to obsessive-compulsive disease and is difficult to effectively treat.

When most people hear about animal hoarding, they tend to form an image in their mind of a kindly older woman, vaguely looking like Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, living in a little cottage surrounded by a couple of dozen sleek, well-fed cats that she is besotted with. The cats are lovingly cared for, and sit around comfortably while she has tea with her friends or neighbors.

The reality is much grimmer, affecting an equal number of dogs as well as cats, who are often kept under horrific and abusive conditions.

Ivan Bandura / Wikimedia Commons
Ivan Bandura / Wikimedia Commons

The Dark Truth of Animal Hoarding

Consider a typical case of animal hoarding, this one from September 2023. A Chandler, Arizona woman, April McLaughlin, was taken into custody after a search warrant was executed at her house. She was running an unlicensed animal rescue out of her home and the search was triggered by concerned neighbors because of smells coming from the home and the woeful condition of the 55 dogs she was keeping.

Authorities found five dead puppies stored in a freezer next to packages of food. Animal control officials reported that the living dogs were undernourished, most without water, and the consensus was that many were in such poor physical condition that they would likely need to be euthanized.

Firefighters who attended the scene reported that the air quality in the home was so bad that they had to wear special breathing equipment when they came to remove the dogs. The house was a mess and sufficiently contaminated that it was unlikely to be salvageable, so the authorities had it condemned. McLaughlin was booked into a Phoenix jail, charged with 55 counts of animal abuse, 55 counts of animal cruelty, and one count of vulnerable adult abuse (because her elderly mother also lived in the house).

This is not an unusual case. Data shows that every year, approximately 3,500 animal hoarders come to the attention of authorities. On any given day, a simple search for "animal hoarding" on Google will give you new incidents just like the one I described here. In North America alone, 250,000 animals are affected each year.

When I searched the scientific literature, I was surprised that the earliest mention of animal hoarding that I could find was a 1981 study that looked at multiple animal ownership in New York City. Many more studies have been conducted since then and they confirm that the problem of animal hoarding is worldwide. This is demonstrated by a recent review article from Brazil and additional data collection from Italy.

Who Is Likely to Become an Animal Hoarder?

The steady accumulation of data gives us a clear picture of who animal hoarders tend to be in the U.S. and Canada.

  • Typically between 70 and 80 percent of animal hoarders are women.
  • Approximately half of animal hoarders are 55 years of age or older.
  • 71 percent are individuals who are widowed, divorced, or single.
  • Approximately half of all hoarders live alone.
  • Female animal hoarders are more likely to keep cats, while males are more likely to keep dogs.
  • 80 percent of animal hoarders have diseased, dying, or dead animals on the premises.
  • 93 percent of the residential home interiors of hoarders are unsanitary (often essential utilities and major appliances such as toilets, showers, sinks, stoves, or heaters are not functional).
  • 70 percent of the homes of animal hoarders had clearly defined fire hazards.
  • 69 percent of hoarding cases found animal feces and urine that had accumulated in living areas (over one-quarter of hoarders' own beds were soiled with animal feces or urine).
  • 16 percent of residences involved in animal hoarding were subsequently condemned as unfit for human habitation.

The Psychology Behind Animal Hoarding

The psychological causes behind animal hoarding are still under investigation; however, the vast majority of hoarders claim that their animals are being well cared for and are healthy, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This certainly suggests that, at the minimum, hoarders have an unrealistic belief system.

The consensus seems to be that animal hoarding has a lot of similarities with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). One possible symptom of OCD involves the hoarding of inanimate objects.

Most often, people with OCD who struggle with this symptom will hoard common items of minimal value such as newspapers, books, clothing, and containers (i.e. boxes, paper, and plastic bags). There may be such a large amount of clutter that has accumulated in the home that it becomes difficult to use furniture or appliances or even to move around easily. One study showed that 100 percent of 71 cases of animal hoarding also involved the hoarding of inanimate objects.

Most animal hoarders appear to start out with good intentions and with a special passion for a particular animal or breed. They often drift into the establishment of an informal animal rescue shelter. They will collect animals to the point where it just gets out of control.

In the beginning, community residents may even drop off unwanted pets at the hoarder's residence, treating it as a convenient local shelter. Hoarders often justify their behavior by expressing an intense love for the animals, the feeling that the dogs or cats were surrogate children, and the belief that no one else would, or could, take care of the animals which would result in them being euthanized.

How Effective Is Treatment?

Psychological treatment, such as cognitive-behavioral intervention, doesn't seem to work particularly well. Individuals who are untreated for the disorder almost always relapse into animal hoarding again at the first opportunity.

Most studies suggest that even with therapy, less than a third of patients experience any clinically meaningful change. The resistance of the condition in the face of interventions might be due to a genetic factor. In one study of hoarding disorder, nearly 85 percent of the participants had a close relative with similar tendencies.

It has been suggested that because recidivism rates for hoarders are almost 100 percent, the only long-term solution for stopping this form of animal abuse is to prevent hoarders from owning animals. This is often the conclusion that authorities come to since, in approximately 25 percent of the cases, the hoarder is at least temporarily placed under protective care.

Fortunately in the U.S., if you suspect someone is an animal hoarder, there is a very useful resource on the National Link Coalition website which can direct you to some resources and advise you as to where, in your local area, you might be able to report the situation for both the welfare of the animals and the people involved.

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.


Stumpf BP, Cala´cio B, Branco BC, Wilnes B, Soier G, Soares L, et al. (2023). Animal hoarding: a systematic review. Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry,

Sacchettino L, Gatta C, Giuliano VO, Bellini F, Liverini A, Ciani F, Avallone L, d’Angelo D,Napolitano F. (2023). Description of Twenty-Nine Animal Hoarding Cases in Italy: The Impact on Animal Welfare. Animals 13, 2968-2977.

Worth D, Beck AM. (1981). Multiple ownership of animals in New York City. Transactions and Studies of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. 3, 280-300.

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