When people hear about an animal hoarding situation, often the initial reaction is to have an image of “crazy cat ladies” who collect needy, homeless animals and don’t know when to stop. Many of these people instantly take pity on the “rescued” animals out of concern for their welfare. But they often don’t consider what may have prompted the hoarder to start this behavior — or what role these animals actually play in their lives.
In reality, animal hoarding is a complex and emotionally upsetting phenomenon that profoundly requires intervention and compassion. As an animal lover, you may ask yourself: What can I do to help? Here are some suggestions to gently help the person and the animals involved in one of these multi-layered situations.
What is animal hoarding?
According to Dr. Gary Patronek, VMD, PhD, a consultant for the Animal Rescue League of Boston, and an author of many studies about animal hoarding: “Animal hoarding was first defined as someone who is accumulating a large number of animals; failing to provide minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation and veterinary care; and failing to act on the deteriorating condition of the animals (including disease, starvation and even death); or the environment (severe overcrowding, extremely unsanitary conditions); or the negative effect of the collection on their own health and well-being and on that of other household members.”
What often starts out with the best of intentions can quickly progress into a situation whereby the animal hoarder becomes emotionally and physically overwhelmed, and also socially isolated from friends and family. Animal hoarding frequently ends in a miserable (and even disastrous) situation for all concerned.
Hoarding behavior often begins in an innocent attempt to rescue stray animals. However, the number of “rescued” animals slowly begins to grow. The animals suffer, the humans cannot stop their behavior — and frequently outside intervention is perceived as a personal attack. Hoarders can fight tooth and nail to keep their “rescued” animals because they truly believe that they love them and can care for them better than anyone else.
But it makes no difference what drives people to hoard animals for which they are unable to give adequate care. According to Dr. Patronek, “Animal hoarders have a powerful attachment to their animals. Some may justify their behavior with the view that animals are like surrogate children and that no one will care for them as well as they do. They harbor a fear that if they seek help, the animals will be euthanized. Hoarders often minimize or deny the problems in their living conditions.”
Many hoarders will go to great lengths in order to keep their hoarding behavior secret. They may have obtained a legitimate non-profit tax status to validate themselves as a sanctuary or animal rescue group. “Hoarders often will seek the services of several different veterinarians in order to conceal the truth about the actual number of animals they have in their home,” says Dr. Patronek.
While no one yet knows all the reasons why people collect animals, researchers are studying this behavior to learn more about the motivation. Most importantly, their goal is to prevent hoarding and helping the people who are actively engaged in this devastating practice.
The damage caused
According to Dr. Patronek, “Animals are hurt in a hoarding situation. Dozens to hundreds of animals are kept in squalor with diseases left untreated. There is prevailing starvation; crowding and fighting are going on. The animals are often kept in tight confinement in an ammonia-laden atmosphere. These conditions result in the animals’ poor mental well-being and ultimately even in death.”
How you can help
What we have in common is that we are all animal lovers. So if we know or suspect that someone is hoarding animals, our first reaction is often a deep concern for the animals — along with a strong desire to help.
First, try to make a home visit to assess the situation. Is the person living under healthy conditions and capable of taking appropriate care of their animals? If you have doubts, gently suggest that asking for (and accepting) help is okay. You can remind the person that everyone gets overwhelmed at some time in his or her lives — even when they start out with the best intentions.
When approaching someone you suspect may be hoarding animals, Dr. Patronek suggests that you keep an “open, compassionate and non-judgmental attitude.” A confrontational attitude can make the hoarder defensive and more likely to shut down. It’s important not to push too fast, and focus instead on building a trusting relationship. Proceed at the person’s pace — and remember that moving too fast may impede the process instead of helping. Remember: This type of situation doesn’t happen overnight, nor does a solution.
For additional help, a phone call to your local animal welfare enforcement agency, police department, animal shelter or veterinarian can be the crucial first step toward the recovery of both the animals and the hoarder. These agencies know the steps to take to help begin the healing process.
Because animal hoarding is not just about the animals but also the person involved, you can also seek the help of local social service groups, such as adult protective services, health departments and other mental health agencies. Hopefully, this can prevent the person from repeating the behavior.
Remember that the majority of animal hoarders don’t recognize that they have a problem. They truly believe they are taking good care of their animals. Be supportive and stay in contact with the person throughout the healing process. Your gentle and compassionate involvement — along with assistance from professional agencies — can help the animal hoarder and the animals receive the care they badly need.
For more information, you can visit www.tufts.edu/vet/hoarding/. — Jo Singer