By: Nina K. Carroll, M.Sci.
Animal hoarding is defined as: “someone who accumulates a large number of animals; fails to provide minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, and veterinary care; and fails 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” (Patronek 1999).
The term hoarding, therefore, is not defined by the number of pets in an individual household, but the inability of the hoarder to provide acceptable care for the number of animals they possess.
A study conducted on animal hoarding and the risk to public health brings into sharp relief something which has, at best, been disregarded by public health officials and the general public; however, those working in animal control, elderly care, mental health occupations, and the decontamination industry are fully aware of the implications of animal hoarding and the seriousness of its threat to public health and welfare.
The plight of these animals and their owners has been brought to public attention with television shows such as Animal Cops on The Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. An episode of this series depicts animal control workers entering the home of an elderly woman whom neighbors reported due to the smell emanating from the home and the several dozen animals they believed were being kept in squalid conditions. These well-meaning neighbors had called for help out of compassion for the animals and for the woman who was hoarding them.
The home could be described as nothing less than a pig sty. (Pig sties may actually be cleaner than the home the workers entered.) The floors were littered with trash, animal feces, urine, vomit, rotted food products, and even dead animals. Dozens of animals were running loose inside the home or were in makeshift pens/cages. Many were sick and/or malnourished. The stench was almost overwhelming to the officers.
“It is not uncommon for hoarders to have from dozens to hundreds of animals, often both living and dead, confined in apartments, trailers, cars, and houses. Sanitary conditions often deteriorate to the extent that dwellings must be condemned by public health authorities as unfit for human habitation. Unfortunately, because of ill health, contagious diseases, and the large numbers involved, euthanasia is often the only option for many of the animals rescued from such situations. By the time these situations have deteriorated to the point they cannot be ignored, expenses for veterinary services and housing of animals, litigation, and clean-up or demolition of premises can run into the tens of thousands of dollars” (Patronek, 1999).
The harm inflicted upon those involved, human and animal alike, can include very serious health risks and be emotionally disturbing.
Hoarders are often viewed as mentally unstable, filthy, and cruel, or as criminals. According the research conducted by Patronek, 1999, this is rarely the case. The majority of hoarders are elderly women who live alone. They do not intend to be cruel to these animals; in fact, just the opposite. In their minds, they believe they are helping these animals, most of which are strays or from animal shelters. They adopt many of the animals because they fear them being euthanized. The elderly woman in the episode of Animal Cops actually attempted to hide smaller animals in dresser drawers when the officers were removing the other animals because she believed she was saving them from harm. Sadly, when a hoarding situation reaches a critical stage, most of these animals will have to be euthanized anyway.
The breeding among these animals is almost never intentional. The hoarders either do not have the money, time, or means to have the pets spayed or neutered; therefore, the problem rarely gets better. It almost always gets worse. Many of these hoarders, if penalized, simply move to a new location and start all over again, often with the same animals.
Senile dementia is suspected in the majority of these cases, as well as simple loneliness. The most common reason these situations come to the attention of law enforcement agencies is unsanitary conditions of the residence via reports from neighbors. An overwhelming 59.3% of these cases involved repeat investigations of the same individual.
The reasons for complaints, as reported to the investigating agencies, were (in order of commonality): unsanitary conditions, excessive number of animals, animals needing medical attention, odor, malnourished animals, accumulation of junk, odd human behavior, loose animals, damage to buildings, and noise.
Mental health agencies are reluctant to and/or restrained from involvement in this type of situation due to several factors, such as lack of timely reporting, apathy from those in a position to report, and legal constraints due to no specific laws addressing the situation. Often these cases simply “fall through the cracks” until it is too late. Simple observations could help derail a potentially horrific situation from developing. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of hoarding behavior and providing the proper mental treatment can circumvent the situation at an early stage.
Property owners, maintenance personnel, neighbors, family members, and friends need to be alert to the behavior and living situation of the elderly. Pay attention to how much trash they are accumulating, throwing out or ignoring, lack of personal hygiene and disheveled appearance. Visit and call regularly. Offer to take animals to the vet, local animal shelter, or find homes for them. Do not allow the elderly to wallow in misery and squalor. Check their refrigerators for signs of excessive pet food and spoiled human food. Keep a running count of the number of animals in a residence and look closely at each pet to assure they are in good health.
One can only imagine what it must be like to enter one of these residences when the situation has reached the critical level of being reported for unsanitary conditions and odor. Decontamination companies that specialize in gross filth properties can help save the property manager thousands of dollars by decontaminating a property that has been declared uninhabitable. They can also save people such as property owners, families of the hoarders, and apartment personnel from the emotionally disturbing experience of seeing and smelling these abhorrent conditions.
Patronek, Gary J. 1999. Hoarding of Animals: An Under-Recognized Public Health Problem in a Difficult-to-Study Population, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Public Health Reports 1999; 114: 81-87.