Animal Hoarding: Identifying the Disease
June 09, 2011
The welfare of
animals is very important in American society, and American
families own more pets today than ever before. According to the
2011-2012 American Pets Products Association National Pet Owners
Survey, 62 percent of American households own a pet, which equates
to 72.9 million homes. Unfortunately, of those pets there are
hundreds of new animal hoarding cases each year.
Animal hoarding is
a prevalent topic in mainstream television today due to the popular
cable network shows. Even though the public is more aware of this
issue, it is still a very cryptic and confusing topic for many to
comprehend. The lack of studies and information about this disease
make it a hard one to diagnose and treat.
"There have been a
variety of definitions for animal hoarding produced over the years,
but there are common themes in how it is typically conceptualized,"
says Dr. Derek Bergeron, psychologist for Texas A&M University
Counseling Services and satellite clinician at the Texas A&M
College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM).
"Generally, animal hoarding is indicated by the accumulation of a
large number of animals, overwhelming a person's ability to provide
minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, and veterinary care.
Typically, failure to acknowledge the deteriorating condition of
the animals (including disease, starvation, and even death) and the
household environment (severe overcrowding, very unsanitary
conditions) is demonstrated. Similarly, there is typically a
failure to recognize the negative effect of the collection on the
hoarder's own health and well-being and on the well-being of any
other household members."
Bergeron, animal hoarders can cut across many demographics.
However, some studies suggest that animal hoarders are more likely
to be female, elderly, isolated, and on the lower end of the
socioeconomic spectrum. Also, most hoarders have been identified
with a comorbid mental health condition, such as depression or a
As the group of
people likely to be animal hoarders is so diverse, it is also hard
to decipher their motives and to put them into distinct groups. The
best attempt made by researchers is to place the hoarders into
three groups: overwhelmed caregiver, rescue hoarder, and exploiter
caregiver generally arises out of a dramatic event, such as the
loss of a loved one, economic hardship, or a health scare. The
individual may already have many animals and cannot take care of
them over time, or will choose to take on more animals to mask the
pain and to avoid dealing with the situation.
caregiver type is likely to be more situational, and these
individuals typically have more insight into the situation," notes
Bergeron. "They understand that there is a problem, which is why
they feel overwhelmed. These individuals generally feel a strong
attachment to their animal, which makes addressing the situation
more difficult for them."
feel that they have a mission in life to save and protect animals.
These individuals are often actively engaged in rescue work, and
they may even own a shelter.
often believe that they are the only people who can adequately care
for their animals, and feel that animals would die without them,"
says Bergeron. "These hoarders have a strong need for control, and
do feel in control of the situation despite the problems that
hoarders generally lack empathy for people and animals and are
indifferent to the harm they cause. Their main concern is to
be in control.
do not feel a strong attachment to their animals, unlike the other
two hoarder categories," explains Bergeron. "Rather, their hoarding
behaviors are motivated by a need for control. They have a strong
need to feel dominant and to be the expert. Hoarding animals is the
outlet they have found to meet all of their needs."
does not happen overnight. It is a behavior that develops over
time, and people continue this behavior because it serves a role
for them. The function hoarding serves is typically related to
regulating emotional needs, and very likely involves other mental
Most hoarders do
not recognize their behavior as irregular. However, the hoarders
who do recognize their behaviors as atypical, the overwhelmed
caregivers, will hide their behavior out of shame and fear of
possible consequences. Other hoarders may choose to hide their
behavior, even though they don't recognize their hoarding is
dangerous or different.
who are not aware of their disease may not necessarily believe that
they are doing something 'wrong', but they may appreciate that
there are consequences if other people discover their behavior,"
notes Bergeron. "Thus, some individuals hide their behavior,
because they desire to continue hoarding animals."
It is important to
identify the dangerous consequences for pets that animal hoarding
can lead to.
"The nature of
hoarding leads to deficits in basic areas of care such as providing
food, medical care, and attending to sanitation," says Bergeron.
"Thus, hoarding can lead to starvation, lack of medical treatment,
and increased risk of disease transmission. Hoarding can be very
dangerous for the animal. Increased animal suffering and death are
potential consequences if hoarding behaviors persist and are
To this date, there
have been no controlled studies done on treating animal hoarding.
Therefore, there are no recognized treatments with strong empirical
support for addressing animal hoarding.
evidence suggests that hoarding is a difficult problem to treat,"
explains Bergeron. "Hoarding will likely require longer term
therapy. Part of the complexity of working with hoarders relates to
the likelihood of dual diagnosis with other mental health problems.
This means that multiple problems will need to be addressed to
increase the likelihood that the individual will be able to make a
change in the long-term. However, given that there are treatments
with strong empirical support for other common mental health
problems, it may be easier to seek treatment for these other
If you suspect a
friend or a neighbor is an animal hoarder, ask your veterinarian
for assistance. Veterinarians will know a responsible agency in the
area to contact to get help for the individual and their
Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine
& Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be
viewed on the Web at vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk.
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