The RCHS would like to bring to your attention a complex issue that encompasses mental health, animal welfare and public safety concerns. It’s called Animal Hoarding.
Animal hoarding is defined as an individual that is housing more animals than he or she can adequately care for. They have an inability to provide even minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, shelter and veterinary care—often resulting in animal starvation, illness and death. In the majority of cases, animal hoarders believe they are helping their animals and deny this inability to provide minimum care.
Every year in the United States, a quarter of a million animals fall victim to hoarding. Animals collected range from cats and dogs to reptiles, rodents, birds, exotics and even farm animals.
However, not everyone who has multiple animals is an animal hoarder. There are several signs that may indicate someone is an animal hoarder:
- They have numerous animals and may not know the total number of animals in their care.
- Their home is deteriorated (i.e., dirty windows, broken furniture, holes in the wall and floor, extreme clutter).
- There is a strong smell of ammonia, and floors may be covered with wet or dried feces, urine, vomit, etc.
- Animals are emaciated, lethargic and not well-socialized.
- Fleas and vermin are present.
- The individual is isolated from the community and appears to neglect him- or herself.
- The individual insists that all of their animals are happy and healthy—even when there are clear signs of distress and illness.
Animal hoarding is covered implicitly under every state’s animal cruelty statute, which typically requires caretakers to provide sufficient food, water and veterinary care. However, only two states, Illinois and Hawaii, currently have statutory language specifically addressing animal hoarding.
In most cases, criminal prosecution of animal hoarding can be a difficult process and may not be the most effective route, since hoarders are often emotionally troubled rather than criminally inclined.
Why Do People Hoard Animals?
It is not clearly understood why people become animal hoarders. Early research pointed toward a variant of obsessive-compulsive disorders, but newer studies and theories lead toward:
- Attachment disorders in conjunction with personality disorders
- Delusional thinking
- Other mental illnesses
Some animal hoarders began collecting after a traumatic event or loss, while others see themselves as “rescuers” who save animals from lives on the street.
How to Tell if Someone Is a Hoarder
Animal hoarders often appear intelligent and clearly believe they are helping their animals. In addition, many hoarders possess the ability to garner sympathy and to deceive others into thinking their situation is under control. They often are blind to the fact that their animals are suffering under their care.
Animal hoarders range in age, and can be men or women of any race or ethnic group. Elderly people may be more at risk, due to their own deteriorating health and isolation from community and social groups. One commonality between all hoarders is a failure to grasp the severity of their situation.
Hoarders Posing as Rescue Groups or Animal Shelters
Research shows many hoarders are beginning to set themselves up as “rescue shelters,” complete with non-profit status. They may appear to be sensible people, persuasively conveying their love for animals and readiness to take those who are sick and with special needs.
Here are several signs that a rescue group or shelter may involve a hoarder:
- The group is unwilling to let visitors see the location where animals are kept.
- The group will not disclose the number of animals in its care, and makes little effort to adopt animals out.
- More animals are continually taken in, despite the poor condition of existing animals.
- Legitimate shelters and rescue organizations are viewed as the enemy. Animals may be received at a remote location (parking lot, street corner, etc.) rather than at the group’s facilities.
If you think someone you know is struggling with animal hoarding, pick up the phone and call your local Animal Control Officer, police department, the RCHS, an animal welfare group or veterinarian to initiate the process of getting them—and the animals—the help they need.
The RCHS works closely with Animal Control Officers and local, county, and State law enforcement officials. The RCHS will not go out and pick up or trap animals. Our role is to support law enforcement. If law enforcement determines they have a hoarding situation, it’s up to them to either convince the hoarder to surrender the animals or seek confiscation through the law and/or local ordinances.
Dr. Kevin A. Rushing