The blinds are closed. The resident is mysterious. Strange smells and noises drift from the property. Animals arrive, but never leave.
When neighbors or family become concerned and ask officials to investigate, a shocking scene can arise: dozens of animals, alive and dead, caught between filth and neglect, deprived of minimal food or sanitation.
Is this a case of criminal activity? From mental illness? What can be done to help?
What is animal hoarding?
“Animal hoarding can be identified when a person is housing more animals than they can adequately and adequately care for,” said Anne B. Pagano, executive director of the Hoarding Disorder Resource and Training Group, Inc. “It is a complex issue that often encompasses mental health, animal welfare and public safety concerns.”
Also known as “Noah’s Syndrome,” animal hoarding is defined by the inability to provide even minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, shelter, and veterinary care. Animals left to their own devices can breed, starve, get sick or die together.
From a clinical perspective, animal hoarding is considered a compulsive spectrum disorder and a type of hoarding, as described in the DSM-5.
Who discovers the problem?
Hoarding animals is difficult from the start,” said Emily Lewis of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, “because it happens behind closed doors. It may take a while for people to realize there is a problem. It may take a while for an enforcement agency to find out what’s going on because the person tends to be very private or embarrassed, so they won’t be outspoken. They may not even have a good understanding of what’s going on.”
Specialists learn to notice signs of animal hoarding. For example, with an excess of cats, blinds or curtains on the windows can be shredded. A buildup of trash or destruction may be visible along the edges of a windowsill or the bottom of a door. “If they have an aluminum door, urine will cause it to rust on the underside,” says Lewis. “The yard may have an accumulation of animal carriers, boxes, tarpaulins and various items that have accumulated over time. These are all indicators that can tell a researcher that something is not right.”
How are victims of animal hoarding rescued?
Animal Abuse Research: A Joint Approach from Victim to Sentencepublished in February 2022, explains that correcting a hamster situation in animals is slow and complex, requiring the participation of multiple agencies, from public safety and animal control officials to mental health specialists and veterinarians.
Documenting and clearing the site requires personal protective equipment, as the concentration of animal waste and carcasses can transmit disease and give off noxious odors. Physical structures at the site can be unstable and dangerous from neglect, while surviving animals can be scared, in pain and potentially difficult to handle.
As the animals themselves become legal proof, they require a chain of custody to be transferred to medical care and rehomed for safety. Rescue efforts may also be delayed due to space and financial constraints at nearby animal shelters.
Who is most likely to hoard animals?
People who engage in animal hoarding often have a background of trauma or attachment disorder.
Most people who hoard animals are women over the age of 50. The sex predisposition may be related to the oxytocin, cortisol and related neurochemical pathways of social affiliation.
Recent research suggests that social kinship and “grooming and befriending” behaviors (such as caring for animals) reduce stress-induced cortisol levels for women. Interestingly, this neurochemical mechanism does not appear to reduce stress for males, who happen to hoard fewer animals.
At what point does pet ownership become dysfunctional?
Usually one of the three routes leads to animal hoarding behavior.
1. Overwhelmed caretaker. This is where pet owners start with good intentions, but circumstances take over. After going through hard times, physically, financially or emotionally, they can’t keep up and the situation spirals out of control. The overwhelmed caretaker’s passivity and neglect allows their animals to reproduce and make the situation worse.
Lewis has seen cases of animal hoarding where overwhelmed caretakers feel as attached to the animals as if they were their relatives. In turn, their self-esteem depended on the animals.
“In these cases, because the person might be embarrassed, if their plumbing breaks or if one of their utilities goes down, they’re not going to call a repairman,” Lewis says. “Conditions can get deplorable pretty quickly after that.”
2. Mission to save. Some people feel an overwhelming mission to “rescue” unclaimed pets and animals, akin to an addiction. Their urge is so intense that the person aggressively seeks out animals and collects them beyond any realistic capacity to care for them.
People who follow this pattern, Pagano says, feel passionate about their mission and believe that only they can provide good care. They find it difficult to refuse requests to take on more animals, so the numbers can skyrocket.
What makes these cases challenging is that these individuals can publicly present themselves as a legitimate bailout. They actively work to evade authorities, sometimes with the help of a network of enablers. Privately, these individuals disconnect from reality, acquiring more and more animals while escaping in denial and hiding how the animals in their possession suffer.
3. Exploitation. Individuals with antisocial traits actively collect animals for their own personal benefit and have no real concern for the welfare of the animals. Pagano deliberated on such a situation.
“The hoarding person was a prominent dog breeder known for showing his purebred dogs in competitions,” Pagano said. “But once the dogs ‘aged’ or developed conditions that no longer made them ‘show-worthy,’ the dogs would not retire to be adopted or maintained as pets.” Instead, they were “neglected and left to suffer and die on the property while the owner/breeder moved on with his newer and showable dogs.”
This, she explains, was a clear case of exploitative animal hoarding. “Because this was a rural area, there was no hoarding task force, so I reported it directly to the local police station and consulted with both the police and the local ASPCA to support an immediate intervention.” Dozens of dogs were eventually found on the property. Twenty were in excellent health, cared for and well fed, while 14 others were in various states of disease, starvation and neglect. A full 25 had died, left to decay where they had died.
In the end, “the person was arrested and given a three-month prison sentence for animal cruelty,” Pagano said. “He was prohibited from owning or having any direct involvement with animals, and after being notified by the local police, he lost his certification as a registered breeder.”
Can animal hoarding behavior be stopped?
Individuals who fall into animal hoarding behavior often fail or refuse to understand the gravity of the situation. Many hold on to the belief that they are helping the animals and deny the harm they have caused.
Even after authorities have removed animals through enforcement efforts, animal hoarding will usually resume if given the opportunity. Constant oversight is essential, with clearly stated expectations and compliance monitoring.
A preliminary study, conducted in the UK with individuals who hoarded horses, suggests that motivational interviewing (MI) may help reduce animal hoarding behavior. MI avoids direct confrontation but instead uses patience and active listening skills while showing empathy for how difficult and emotionally charged behavior change can be.
Examples of positive outcomes reported with MI included an elderly owner who, reassured by an animal welfare officer’s non-confrontational approach, invited him to the scene to see a stallion that hadn’t been out of the stable for three years. . Another hoarding person voluntarily chose to give up the majority of his horses and effectively ended his horse rescue operation.
If family members get involved early on to support the individual, Lewis believes, they may be able to support mental health support, spay and neuter, and other interventions that “help bridge the gap between the person suffering from this behavior and enforcement and animal control entities.” Ideally, intervention occurs before the scene becomes a crime for the individual and a tragedy for the animals.