Sometimes we hear their cases on the news, dozens of sick and frightened dogs or cats removed from the home of an animal hoarder. But is there a typical profile, and how big is the problem?
A new study in Animal Welfare investigates 24 cases of animal hoarding in Spain between 2002 and 2011.
Animal hoarding is not simply having large numbers of pets; it also involves a lack of care for those pets, such that they are sick, not receiving veterinary care, and living in unhygienic conditions. The hoarder is usually in denial about the situation and still acquiring more animals. As well as any mental health issues, the person may also suffer physical health problems from a living situation littered with animal urine, feces, and even dead pets.
For the humane societies who take in the animals, it can be a difficult problem to deal with given the sudden intake of so many creatures in poor health. "Animals coming from cases of animal hoarding sometimes must be euthanized, due to their severely affected state," write the study's author. "The remaining animals rescued in hoarding cases usually need a lot of veterinary care and exhibit difficult-to-solve behavior problems. This means they will not turn easily or ever into an adoptable animal."
"Our study supports the idea that animal hoarding should be considered and recognized as a genuine form of animal abuse and incompetent pet ownership."
Hoarding animals is an under-researched problem. It is not a psychiatric disorder in its own right, although it does appear under the general umbrella of hoarding disorders in the DSM-5. The authors of this paper say media reports present hoarders as devoted animal lovers or harmless eccentrics. The full scale of the problem is often not understood.
The study looked at all animal hoarding cases reported to a large Spanish humane society, the Asociación Nacional de Amigos de los Animales (ANAA). Most of the cases were in Madrid, although some were in other parts of the country and were referred to the ANAA by other humane societies. It is likely there were other cases in Spain during this time that went unnoticed or were not reported to ANAA.
Previous research has suggested that most hoarders are female. In this study, about half of the hoarders were male and half female. It seems that hoarding is a middle-aged or older person’s problem, with 63 percent of the hoarders aged over 65 and about another third in middle-age. As in previous studies, most of the hoarders lived alone, although three lived with someone else. All of them were said to have a bad or borderline financial situation.
Hoarders are typically unaware there is a problem, and this was the case for most of the people in this study, too. Only three of the 24 cases admitted there was a problem with their living conditions, and only one agreed that the animal’s welfare was compromised.
Although only 24 cases, a total of 1,218 animals were involved, mostly dogs and cats. It was more common to hoard only dogs, but some hoarded only cats or both cats and dogs. Some hoarders were experiencing an increase in animals because they had not spayed or neutered them, and so accidental breeding was taking place. Some of the hoarders were deliberately acquiring more animals by seeking out strays or deliberate breeding.
The most common reasons for a complaint to be made to ANAA were "animals in need of medical care," "malnourished or mistreated animals," and "excessive number of animals." The person making the complaint was typically a neighbor, but other humane societies also frequently reported problems.
The animals were in a sorry state, without proper access to food and water, and many of them were sick. Although previous research has found a tendency for dead animals, that was only true of four of the 24 cases.
It seems that in many cases, hoarding had already been going on for five years, suggesting that there might be ways of developing earlier interventions. Hoarding is known as a difficult problem to solve, and three of the cases were recidivist, where people had started to hoard again after earlier intervention.
Forty-four percent of the animal hoarders also showed signs of object hoarding, and this is similar to previous research.
“Our study supports the idea that animal hoarding should be considered and recognized as a genuine form of animal abuse and incompetent pet ownership,” the author's write.
Another striking finding is that when animals were removed, no further assistance was provided to hoarders to help with any underlying psychiatric or medical problems. This could be one reason why some of the hoarders were recidivists. Further research is needed to see if other agencies (such as medical professionals and social services) could work with humane societies to design programs to prevent re-offending.