Animal hoarding and mental illness

When does a houseful of animals become too many? Is animal hoarding an issue solely of animal welfare and local health ordinances, or does it also contain elements of mental illness?

This complex intersection of humans and animals was illustrated in St. Anthony today, where authorities had to remove 118 cats from a couple’s mobile home.

The Star Tribune of Minneapolis spoke to Keith Streff, senior investigator for the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley.:

The woman fits the classic profile of an obsessive-compulsive animal hoarder, "which is sad for both animals and owners," Streff said. In 2002, Humane Society workers removed 72 cats from the same couple’s residence when they lived in Coon Rapids, he said.

These tend to be horrific cases, not only for the animals involved but also for the human collectors, who frequently are living in squalid, unsanitary conditions. Some dwellings become so saturated with animal waste that authorities have no alternative but to tear down the building.

Surprisingly, it’s only been within the past decade that animal hoarding, or collecting, has come under closer study. Most experts now agree that mental health issues play a role, although it’s not clear to what degree.

The Humane Society of the United States describes it this way:

For most people, the term "animal hoarding" conjures up images of an eccentric "cat lady." Despite the stereotype that collecting animals is simply a quirky behavior, recent research has pointed to a direct correlation between psychological problems and the tendency to hoard.

"Hoarding is very often a symptom of a greater mental illness, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. For most hoarders, it is likely that their actions are the result of a true pathology, even though they are still usually able to function quite well in society," says Randall Lockwood, HSUS vice president for Research and Educational Outreach.

Because animal hoarders quite often appear to lead normal lives, it’s important to recognize when a person’s fixation with animals has gotten out of control. The HSUS defines an animal hoarder as a person who has more animals than he or she can properly care for. Another defining characteristic is the hoarder’s denial of his inability to care for the animals and his failure to grasp the impact his neglect has on the animals, the household, and the human occupants of the dwelling.

What’s more, hoarders are usually well-educated and possess excellent communication skills. Many hoarders have an uncanny ability to attract sympathy for themselves, no matter how abused their animals may be, which is often how hoarders manage to fool others into thinking the situation is under control. 

Research on hoarding behavior is still in its infancy. Hoarding is thought to contain some elements of obsessive-compulsive disorder – but many hoarders also display issues with addiction, delusion, attachment disorder or all four, according to AnimalHoarding.com, a site that promotes public education about hoarding.

Case studies of hoarders suggest that most are female, older and live alone – but the behavior also has been found among men and among younger people. Although cats are most likely to be hoarded, animal collectors also have been known to accumulate dogs, rats and, in one case on the West Coast in 2007, parakeets.

Can people who hoard be successfully treated to prevent a relapse? The record so far is dismal. It’s believed that nearly 100 percent of animal hoarders eventually begin hoarding again.

The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium wrote in a 2000 study in Psychiatric Times that it’s rare for criminal charges to have any impact on a hoarder.

Until models for this behavior are established and tested, our understanding of this problem will be limited. Like many psychological conditions, the causes of animal hoarding are probably multiple and, therefore, assessment of emotions, behaviors and thoughts must be multifaceted to point the way toward successful treatment.

Prevention and treatment of animal hoarding likely will require some combination of public education, training for authorities involved in hoarding cases, and earlier intervention to identify hoarders before situations escalate out of control, the research consortium believes.