Is Animal Hoarding a Distinct Mental Disorder?

There are many differences between people that hoard objects and those that collect critters

Cat Lady
Shaunl via iStock

For better or worse, hoarding has gotten a lot of attention in recent years due to the popularity of several TV shows, including “Hoarders” and “Hoarding: Buried Alive.” People suffering from the disorder collect objects, stuffing every available corner of their homes and cars with anything from clothes to old newspapers to bags of trash. The disorder can be serious, leading to unsafe living arrangements and social isolation. 

But the results are even more problematic for people who collect animals. A new study, published in the journal Psychiatry Researchexamines the motivations behind so-called animal hoarding, suggesting that the disorder is not actually as closely related to object hoarding as once thought, reports Michael Price at Science. Unlike previous approaches to the disorder, the latest study suggests that animal hoarding should be classified as an independent disorder with the hope of developing specialized treatments to help these people cope with the compulsion to collect critters.

Animal hoarders acquire and live with dozens or even hundreds of creatures in their homes, causing suffering for both the hoarder and animals. The people and their creatures often live in poor conditions; the animals often lack adequate food and medical treatment. And though this seems similar to object hoarding, the latest study addresses several differences that may influence treatments.

The study came from the work of Doctoral student Elisa Arrienti Ferreira at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, who was studying animal hoarding for her master's degree. At the time, it struck her how different object and animal hoarding seemed to be and she began to dig into the topic. 

Ferreira and her colleagues visited the homes of 33 animal hoarders, assessing their living situation and interviewing them about their disorder. Of this lot, the average hoarder had 41 animals. In total, the 33 hoarders had acquired 915 dogs, 382 cats and 50 ducks—one house alone contained roughly 170 dogs and some 20 to 30 cats, reports Charles Choi at Discover Magazine

As Price reports, the demographics of the animal hoarders were consistent with what researchers know about object hoarders. About three quarters were low income, 88 percent were not married and two-thirds were elderly. But there were differences. Object hoarders are pretty much evenly split between men and women, meanwhile roughly 73 percent of animal hoarders are women.

Their motivations also differ. “When you talk with object hoarders, they talk about hoarding objects because they might need them some day—say, they might read those magazines,” Ferreira tells Choi. “But with animal hoarders, you hear, ‘They need me, and I need them. They are important to me; I can’t imagine how my life would be if they didn’t exist. I am on a mission; I was born to do this.’” Many of the animal hoarders began collecting stray animals after a trauma, like the death of a loved one, Ferreira adds.

And while object hoarders are often conscious of their condition and want to help to change their lives, animal hoarders seem to think there’s not a problem, even if many of the animals in their care are suffering. Many of them shun attempts to help.  “They are really suspicious—they keep thinking you are there to steal the animals,” Ferreira says. “So it’s really complicated to approach them—you have to establish trust with them, and that takes time, and I think it will be very difficult.”

The consequences are also harder to deal with than object hoarding, notes Price. Unlike object hoarders, whose homes can be cleared out by a junk removal service, an animal hoarder may need to have pets euthanized, put under veterinary care or adopted. Then there's the remediation required to clean a home covered in animal urine and feces.

Ferreira and her team are not the first to suggest animal hoarding is its own unique disorder, but the latest work is changing how researchers think about the issue. “It does not appear to be a single, simple disorder,” Randall Lockwood, senior vice president of Forensic Sciences and Anti-Cruelty projects for the ASPCA tells Tait. “In the past it has been seen as an addictive behavior, and as a manifestation of OCD. We’re also now seeing it as an attachment disorder where people have an impaired ability to form relationships with other people and animals fill that void.”

Graham Thew, who studies hoarding at Oxford tells Price the new research is a good start, but there’s not enough to classify animal hoarding as its own disorder yet. “This paper makes some interesting behavioral observations, but I think we’d need more evidence of a distinct underlying psychological difficulty before we start to think about animal hoarding as a distinct difficulty.”

Whatever the cause, hoarding will be with us for a while in countries around the world. In Japan, out of control breeding of pet dogs and cats owned by animal hoarders is a significant enough problem that the Environment Ministry will release guidelines next year for dealing with the animals and their afflicted owners. According to Amelia Tait at Vice, in the United States authorities discover between 900 and 2,000 cases of animal hoarding every year, impacting about 250,000 creatures. And as the U.S. population ages, hoarding is on the rise, Sara Solovitch reported last year for The Washington Post. 

But hopefully by better understanding the causes and motivations for the disorder, scientists can better help people cope with what is often a debilitating condition.

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