Animal hoarders are harmful to pets and humans

Animal hoarders hit the news headlines from time to time, usually when an animal welfare organisation raids a home that has multiple pets living in appalling conditions.  The pets may be confiscated and sometimes there is court action against the owner. But how exactly is an animal hoarder defined? It’s not necessarily the lady with 12 cats and a purple rinse that everyone dubs the ‘crazy cat lady’. In fact, it’s not the number of animals you have but rather whether or not those animals are provided with sufficient care.

This means that someone with 20 cats who’s able to meet all of their needs wouldn’t classify as a hoarder. But a person with only seven cats who’s overwhelmed by the situation and unable to provide a minimum level of care would.

In the United States it is estimated that upwards of 250 000 animals could be classified as belonging to hoarders and unfortunately the trend seems to be growing.

How to recognise animal hoarders

Animal hoarders are often characterised by obsessive attempts to accumulate or maintain a collection of animals in the face of progressively deteriorating conditions.

“Even though things are bad or going downhill, they’re still trying to get more animals or keep the ones they’ve got,” says shelter medicine instructor and veterinarian Dr Kirk Miller.

Animal hoarders fail to provide their pets with minimal standards of sanitation, space, nutrition and veterinary care, and they are unable to recognise the effects of this failure on the welfare of the animals, themselves and other people who live in the household, says Dr. Miller.

There are three identifiable types of animal hoarder:

  1. The overwhelmed caregiver. According to Dr. Miller, this is a person with good intentions who’s trying to take care of their animals but eventually becomes overwhelmed. Pets in this situation are often passively acquired. Consider the neighbourhood ‘cat lady’ who keeps getting cats brought to her to the point that the situation spins out of control. “Overwhelmed caregivers are more likely to understand there’s a problem and thus typically have fewer issues with authority and accepting intervention,” Dr. Miller says.
  2. The rescue hoarder. Rescue hoarders, on the other hand, have a compulsive need to rescue animals from euthanasia and tend to see humane organisations as the enemy — in their eyes, they’re the only ones who can help these animals, explains Dr. Miller. Unlike overwhelmed caregivers, they actively acquire pets and will avoid authority. “They’re not amenable to help because they believe they’re the only ones who can help,” he says.
  3. The exploiter hoarder. The exploiter hoarder is indifferent to the animals they acquire. “Accumulating animals satisfies some need they have,” he says. “Sometimes it’s just to have a bunch of animals.” This category can include those who run puppy mills and who illegally sell animals into research. Exploiter hoarders have an extreme need for control and will lie, cheat and steal to achieve their ends.

Animal hoarders often keep their pets in unhygienic conditions

Why hoarders are harmful to pets and humans

Malnutrition, neglect, stress and infectious diseases are common with these animals. Sometimes hoarded pets are too far gone — medically, behaviourally or both — to be adopted out after being rescued.

The people involved in these situations don’t go unscathed either, as risk of diseases that can be passed on to humans is high and sanitation concerns and self-neglect are common. To illustrate his point, Dr. Miller describes a case in which a woman lived in a one-bedroom apartment with 48 cats. When her toilet stopped working, she was unable to ask for help from her landlord (due to violating the conditions of her lease by housing so many cats) and started using her bathtub as a toilet.

Hoarding disorder is now a separate listing in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and theories regarding the cause abound. Some speculate that it’s linked to a traumatic event or an attachment disorder developed in childhood (i.e. a person who wasn’t cared for properly as a child may turn to animals and develop unhealthy dependencies). Others have pointed to addiction models, delusional disorder, borderline personality disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and insistent caregiving — none of which adequately describes every hoarder, says Dr Miller. Dementia has also been documented in many hoarders, but not all of them.

The SPCA will work with municipal authorities to confiscate animals that are neglected by animal hoarders

Dr John Austin, of the SA Veterinary Association’s Animal Ethics and Welfare Committee, says there is no local legislation which relates specifically to animal hoarding. When the matter is dealt with it is usually done jointly by municipal health inspectors and SPCAs.

“The Animals Protection Act No 71 of 1982 and municipal bylaws relating to the residential keeping of animals can be invoked, if necessary, to compel the hoarders to give up their animals and for the hoarding to be stopped. As there are also mental health issues that have to be dealt with, other authorities such as social workers are often called in to assist.”

Dr Austin says veterinarians who become aware of animal hoarders through their work would be obliged on both animal and human interest grounds to bring the matter to the attention of the relevant authorities.

The SPCA says if large numbers of animals are kept in unhygienic conditions, are underfed, diseased or without proper shelter, animal welfare has the right to step in. They will obtain a court order to remove the animals.

Information extracted from an article by Sarah Mouton Dowdy,