Earlier this year, ASPCA Humane Law Enforcement Agents arrived at a New York City apartment to find that dozens of cats and kittens had overtaken the small space. The cats were severely malnourished, and many suffered from upper respiratory disease. There were no litter boxes, and the floor was covered in several inches of feces and urine. Living among the filth and debris was an 85-year-old woman suffering from dementia—she had been hoarding animals for years.
Animal hoarding is a complex and intricate social issue with far-reaching effects that encompass mental health, animal welfare and public safety concerns. Victims can include cats, dogs, reptiles, rodents, birds, exotics and even farm animals. While it’s not clear why people become animal hoarders, current research suggests the cause is often attachment disorder in conjunction with personality disorders, paranoia, dementia, depression and other mental illness. The hoarder does not intend to inflict harm on animals, and in most cases, the hoarder can no longer take care of himself, much less multiple animals.
"We often see that animal hoarders have experienced some traumatic event or loss in their lives," says Fiona Knight, Cruelty Intervention Advocacy Manager at the ASPCA. “Usually, they are very lonely and isolated people—and the animals become their primary source of bonding and interaction.”
While the ASPCA does pursue cruelty charges when appropriate, in many cases, prosecution is not the answer. Not only are such cases difficult to successfully prosecute, but once released, hoarders are overwhelmingly likely to resume collecting excessive numbers of animals. The solution lies in supplying hoarders with the resources and tools they need to keep them from repeating their destructive patterns.
“As a clinical social worker, it is my job to go in and work with the hoarders. Not only do I educate them on the problems caused by having so many animals, but I also connect them with appropriate services,” says Knight. “Whether individuals need a therapist who specializes in hoarding, a cleaning service or the assistance of adult protective services, we provide the resources. Our first priority is to remove the animals and provide them with immediate treatment, but our job doesn’t end there.”
Animal hoarding is a complex and intricate public health and community issue. Its effects are far-reaching and encompass mental health, animal welfare and public safety concerns.
The following criteria are used to define animal hoarding:
It’s important to note that not everyone who has multiple animals is an animal hoarder. A person may have a dozen animals, and all are spayed and neutered and provided with regular vet care and a sanitary environment. This person would not be an animal hoarder. The common signs of an animal hoarder are deteriorating conditions and denial or lack of insight that there is a problem. Animal hoarders often insist that all their animals are happy and healthy when there are clear signs of illness.
It is not clearly understood why people become animal hoarders. Early research pointed toward a variant of obsessive-compulsive disorders but new studies and theories are leading toward attachment disorders in conjunction with personality disorders, paranoia, delusional thinking, depression and other mental illnesses. Some animal hoarders began collecting after a traumatic event or loss, while others see themselves as “rescuers” who save animals from a life on the street.
What is clear is that animal hoarders also tend to neglect themselves and are often elderly and isolated from the community. The fact is that they and their animals need help, and calling your local humane law enforcement department may be a way to initiate the process.
Animal hoarders may think they have good intentions, but their irrational behaviors cause significant suffering to the large numbers of animals in their care. The “hoarder” does not intend to inflict harm on the animals, and in most cases, the “hoarder” can no longer take care of himself, much less multiple animals.
Criminal prosecution of animal hoarding can be a difficult process and may not be the most effective route without other interventions. Such cases are difficult to successfully prosecute and, once released, the “hoarder” is likely to resume collecting an excessive number of animals unless closely monitored.
In almost all animal hoarding cases, the person and the animals are suffering, either from neglect or isolation. You may not want to get the person “in trouble,” but a phone call may be the first step to get them and the animals in their possession the help they need.
Usually, the animals are too unsocialized or too old and sick to be considered adoptable. Because they are not good candidates for adoption, their fate usually involves humane euthanasia. However, by maintaining a relationship with the “hoarder” and providing medical care and spay/neuter services to the animals, the ASPCA ensures that the animals live out their lives with their caregiver and prevents the “hoarder” from perpetuating a situation that is ultimately detrimental to themselves and the animals.
An early intervention has the best chance of a favorable outcome for the person and the animals. The animal hoarder may be unwilling to give up any of the animals or it may be appropriate for the animals to be spayed and neutered and returned to the home if the animal hoarder can provide—or can be aided in providing—care. An early intervention would involve spaying, neutering and vaccinating healthy animals and returning them to a cleaned and decluttered home. Please contact Allison Cardona at firstname.lastname@example.org to get more information on our mobile clinic services (in New York City).
If the client can no longer keep the animals because of illness or eviction, the ASPCA must first visit the home to assess the adoptability of the animals. After this initial visit, a follow-up visit with the mobile spay/neuter clinic can be arranged so that the animals are spayed/neutered, tested and vaccinated before entering the shelter. This entire process usually takes up to six weeks. Please note: if the client is facing immediate eviction and needs to remove the animals in a short period of time, please contact NYC’s Animal Care and Control by calling 311 or the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals at email@example.com.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule an intake assessment.
If the client is unwilling to receive assistance from the ASPCA and if there are signs of neglect and cruelty, the ASPCA Humane Law Enforcement team can be called in to ensure compliance.
Animal hoarding is not just about the animals! Usually, the animal hoarder is neglecting his or her own mental and physical needs and may need assistance for themselves. Animal hoarders range in age, and can be men or women of any race or ethnic group. Elderly people tend to be more at risk due to their own deteriorating health and isolation from community and social groups.