The Horror of Hoarding

January 1, 2009 at 4:58 pm 7 comments

Animal hoarders used to be referred to as animal collectors. The typical stereotype is the crazy cat lady — probably because cats are the most common animal involved. Animal hoarding is a problem that places families and communities, not just animals, at risk.

The problem of animal hoarding is poorly understood. It has been compared to delusional disorders, early-onset dementia, and obsessive-compulsive disorders but none of these adequately explain the disorder.

Hoarding is comprised of three intertwined groups of problem behaviors; acquisition, saving and disorganization. Much like people who hoard possessions, animal hoarders often don’t recognize that they have a problem. Animal hoarders commonly have a persistent and very powerful belief that they provide proper care for their animals, despite strong evidence to the contrary.

The Tufts Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium has an excellent website with detailed information on recognizing animal hoarders and providing interventions in animal hoarding cases. According to Tufts, animal hoarding is defined by four characteristics:

·      failure to provide minimal standards of sanitation, space, nutrition, and veterinary care for the animals;

·      inability to recognize the effects of this failure on the welfare of the animals, human members of the household, and the environment;

·      obsessive attempts to accumulate or maintain a collection of animals in the face of progressively deteriorating conditions, and

·      denial or minimization of problems and living conditions

There are three general types of animal hoarders:

The Overwhelmed Caregiver  has some awareness of their problem and has typically acquired their animal passively. Their problem is typically triggered by a change in circumstances. While they are initially able to provide proper care for their animals, as more are acquired they become overwhelmed and lose the ability to provide even minimal care for the growing population. They lack problem-solving skills, see their animals as family members and usually live socially isolated lives. Their sense of self-esteem is strongly linked to their perceived role as caretakers. Being passive and cooperative, they are generally the easiest group to work with as they don’t usually have problems with authority.

The Rescue Hoarder  is a person who on a mission that has turned into a compulsion. They start out planning to rescue animals so they can be adopted but end up hoarding. These individuals actively acquire animals and believe that they are the only ones who can adequately care for them. They may have an extensive network of enablers and may not live with their animals. Because they perceive of themselves as superior care-givers and believe they hold the animals for their own good, they are typically more difficult to intervene with than the overwhelmed caregiver.

An Exploiter Hoarder  tends to have some sociopathic characteristics. They lack empathy for people and animals and are indifferent to the harm they cause. These individuals actively reject outsiders’ concerns, lack senses guilt and remorse, are manipulative and cunning and are often superficially charming and charismatic. They see themselves as experts who need to control the situation and resist attempts to intervene in an aggressive way. These hoarders sometimes make plans to evade the law or “beat the system”, by doing things like hiding their animals with other hoarders or friends when threatened.

Sadly recidivism in animal hoarding cases is nearly 100%.

According to Tufts:

Hoarders may struggle with self-esteem and with finding their identity and purpose in life. They attach themselves to an image. Therefore, the hoarded animals may play a central role in their lives, which makes the resulting conditions that much more problematic. 

Behavioral changes are difficult for everyone but, as a group, animal hoarders are particularly resistant to change. Compounding the problem is the fact that there is no established psychotherapeutic intervention proven to be effective in these cases.  Some hoarders will resume their activities even after being prosecuted and jailed. And unfortunately determined hoarders can rarely be prevented from resuming their compulsive, controlling behavior.

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Entry filed under: behavior science, dogs, rescue, science. Tags: , , .

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Barb  |  January 2, 2009 at 3:50 am

    Good post! This is such a difficult condition. I have an older relative who is a hoarder – not of animals, fortunately but she is almost pathologically unable to throw anything away. She’s a very intelligent woman but has this huge blind spot, and we haven’t been able to do anything to help her. Any attempts to help her clean her house – even if all we’re doing is throwing away OBVIOUS trash – is met with anxiety that rapidly escalates as our cleaning activities continue.

    The other side of the coin, is how often hoarding is used as a rationale for communities to enact stringent pet limit laws.

    Anyone who knows anything about hoarders knows that pet limits won’t affect them at all, and won’t prevent them from hoarding in the first place. But pet limits sure can hit hard at anyone who does rescue, or who competes with their dogs, and actually reduces the number of good homes available for pets in a community.

  • 2. LabRat  |  January 3, 2009 at 1:51 am

    My mother has a friend that falls under the Rescue Hoarder type… listening to her secondhand reports as she slides deeper and deeper into it is incredibly depressing. My mother refuses to call her on it in any way, but reading this, I’m betting it wouldn’t help anyway. *sigh*

  • 3. Chas S. Clifton  |  January 3, 2009 at 3:27 am

    This writer can tell you some hands-on stories about animal-hoarders.

  • 4. SmartDogs  |  January 3, 2009 at 3:51 am

    LabRat – maybe your mom can nudge her up into the overwhelmed caregiver type. Those, at least, have a reasonable chance of recovery. But I must say that everything I read about recovery and recidivism in the disorder was pretty much clinically depressing.

    Chas – interesting book. I’ve not seen anything written on animal control from a professional rather than AR point of view. I think I need to get two copies so I can send one to a friend who’s an ACO. Thanks!

  • 5. LabRat  |  January 3, 2009 at 7:03 am

    Yeah, me too. That plus the fact that everything I say to my mother regarding “It is not good for cats to be kept inside a crate more or less 24/7 and fed/cleaned when possible” gets binned in the land of “facts I do not wish to know- and, 24 hours later, I don’t!”… I don’t hold out much hope.

  • 6. Laura  |  January 11, 2009 at 2:18 am

    My mom is absolutely the Rescue Hoarder… Now…What do I DO about it ?? She doesn’t see or smell the problem, but everyone else does. I have tried numerous times to approach her only to be met with violent verbal defense. I don’t approach anymore, but the poor animals deserve better. Rolling in their own feces because that’s all the surface area is !! Thanks for letting me vent .

  • 7. Celeste  |  January 18, 2009 at 10:38 pm

    Purdue University Press is releasing a new book, Inside Animal Hoarding, which profiles one of the largest and most intriguing cases of animal hoarding in recent history. Celeste Killeen’s investigation pries open the door to Barbara Erickson’s hidden and closely guarded life, offering an in-depth view of animal hoarding. Dr. Arnold Arluke’s discussion follows the Erickson story with current research on animal hoarding and how it ties into the Erickson case. This integration of investigative journalism and scholarship offers a fresh approach with appeal to a broad audience of readers, those new to learning about the phenomenon, and those with first-hand experience in the animal welfare field.

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