Animal hoarders: beyond the cat lady cliché

How—and why—people go from owning one or two pets, to 200

Kathy Milani/ The HSUS/ Getty Images

Last month, in a suburb of Stockholm, a woman was found living with 191 sickly cats in a home that smelled so strongly of urine, the eyes burned on entry and breathing was difficult. Closer to home, more than 40 dogs were seized recently from an excrement-filled house north of Winnipeg; in East Vancouver, 23 cats were rescued from an animal hoarder; and the Montreal Gazette reported last month on a Laval breeder who lived on a bus with 27 chow chows. “I’m not mentally ill,” he said. “I just live with a pack of dogs.”

But while hoarding tales have abounded lately—there’s even a new Animal Planet series, Confessions: Animal Hoarding—this compulsive behaviour has been around for nearly as long as the printed word (the earliest reference can be found in Dante Aligheri’s epic poem the Divine Comedy). It just wasn’t until recently that academic study began to shed light on hoarding, and why some people collect live cats and dogs like shoes or postcards.

Randy Frost, author of the new book Stuff: Compulsive hoarding and the meaning of things, has been a leader in the study of animal hoarding. He says the afflicted are on a mission to save the pets they “rescue”—even though their pets are usually discovered in ghastly, cramped conditions, and sometimes have to be put-down.

“We usually find that the condition of the home deteriorates,” he says, “so the human being is living like the animal.” But hoarders do not lack empathy for their pets. Rather, he says, “They develop some kind of delusion. They believe they have an ability to communicate with animals that no one else has and that regardless of the condition of the animals, [the animals] are better off with them than they would be with anyone else.”

Frost gained much of his knowledge on this subject as a researcher with the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (or HARC) out of Tufts University, which wrapped-up a decade long research project in 2006. The only group of its kind, HARC found that animal hoarding exists across socioeconomic classes, and that it’s often synonymous with poor sight, emotional instability, impulsivity, anxiety, and chaotic internal and external lives. Animal hoarding may also be a form of attachment disorder: people fail to develop human attachments during childhood and then overcompensate with animals.

But what does a typical animal hoarder look like? While there have been hoarders of both sexes, the cat lady cliché prevails. Hoarders are usually isolated, single women. Cats are the most common object of the hoard, followed by dogs, farm animals, and birds. (There was an interesting case in Sweden that involved a woman who was found living with 11 swans in a one-room apartment.) Hoarders usually live in cities, and in the U.S., the median number of animals per case is 39.

While research on this topic in Canada has been thin, Michael 0’Sullivan, chairman and CEO of the Humane Society of Canada, can attest to the prevalence of hoarding in this country and around the world. “It’s a global phenomenon,” he says. “I have been working with animals for the past 40 years and I’ve seen cases of hoarding in over 100 countries around the world.”

O’Sullivan estimates that there are roughly 300 and 500 hoarding cases in Canada per year, and that they often cost tens of thousands of dollars to remedy. The laws around the number and type of pets one can keep differ on a municipal basis. In Toronto, for example, exotic pets are prohibited, and people can have as many as six animals, only three of which can be dogs. On the federal level, the criminal code says animal owners must provide their pets with suitable and adequate food, water, shelter, and care.

But despite the laws, some people continue to hoard as many animals as they can, and this tendency—especially among females—may actually be a reflection of the evolutionary care mechanism. Stephanie Preston, an assistant professor at University of Michigan who studies hoarding from an evolutionary perspective, says, “People have an innate care giving response that causes them to retrieve distressed offspring, in order to ensure offspring survival. So if you have this innate disposition to feel sorry for, rescue, and sympathize with, what you see as distressed or vulnerable others can be extended to animals.”

There is no standardized treatment for animal hoarders yet, and attempts at intervention are usually unsuccessful. As Preston says, “Often times, if you remove the target of the hoard it can cause the hoarder to be highly depressed.” But if animal hoarding—which is currently under consideration for inclusion in the next Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—is finally recognized as an official disorder, perhaps a treatment will be discovered and there will be a reduction in the number of cat ladies roaming the planet.




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Animal hoarders: beyond the cat lady cliché

  1. Am I a "hoarder"? I live with three dogs and seven cats. The cats are all indoor-only. All ten animals have regular vet care (vaccinations and health exams), and all are spayed or neutered. All are fed high-quality pet food, and the dogs have ample exercise. People who visit comment on the fact that my house is clean and free of any "smell" that would suggest lack of diligence in cleaning out litter boxes. I'm retired and have ample time to keep my house clean and look after all of them.

    Bottom line: legislating a legal number of pets is discimminatory. People should be allowed to care for as many animals as their personal and financial resources permit.

      • I source all my legal/ethical arguments with wikipedia too. if I don't like it, I can just change it!

    • No, you are not a hoarder and my hats off to you for spaying an neutering your pets and ensuring that they are well looked after.
      I'm thinking that hoarders do not take the spaying and neutering side of things seriously as to them more is better …
      Although I would love to have more than 3 dogs, the regulation in my town limits homeowners to 3 dogs & 3 cats. I don't find that discriminating at all, but rather think of it as protecting animals from those who may not be as responsible for our pets as you and I are.
      It's a sad fact, but in so many aspects of life there are just TOO MANY IRRESPONSIBLE PEOPLE out there.

    • You are right, it is not the number of animals that counts it is the quality of care. I know of many people that cannot look after one animal properly.

      Then there is the issue of those who cannot properly look after children, an even bigger and more serious subject.

      Hording animals and living in an unhealthy way with them is a symptom, not the sickness.

      Enjoy your animals sir.

    • ummm…yes.

    • Yeah you may have 10 animals, but the first lady in question ^^^ had 191 ! You don't think that the law needs to step in there ? !

  2. The key is "as many animals as their personal and financial resources permit". The point being: most of the people highlighted in this story did not have the resources to care for the animals, let along themselves.

  3. There is certainly a distinction to be made between people caring for pets and hoarding them. The distinction has to involve the quality of life of both the animals and person involved such that if either or both are living in inhumane conditions, there is likely a mental disorder involved. The term cat lady is is usually preceded by "crazy" and although we should not resort to lay categorization of mental illness, most would recognize abnormal and potentially unhealthy behaviors that might best be served with some form of psychiatric intervention.

  4. After reading this story i guess i'm a hoarder to, i have 4 horses,3 dogs,6 cats and one rabbit,every one is loved and well looked after, regular vet care and tons of room to live and play.I don't think everyone that owns a lot of pets are doing it for some psychiatric reason, myself i tend to keep strays because i know what will happen to them otherwise.We need tougher laws for sure but every case is different,we need to go after the people who allow they to breed at will and then dump offspring along a country road to become someone elses problem, but in the mean time i'll keep looking after all that get dumped on my door step.

    • Maybe you are, maybe not. If you live in a small house with an urban lot, probably so. One horse is too many in that scenario. If you live in a rural area with an acre or more, then it's reasonable. My parents live outside a small town, and didn't replace cats after children were grown and gone, then found mice were moving in, so adopted a pair from our local shelter. Five medium to large dogs roam the yard, and with almost an acre of land, they have enough room to exercise.

  5. Quote: He says the afflicted are on a mission to save the pets they “rescue”
    Answer: Sounds kinda .. Socialist .. ;)
    I would say it MUST have to do with some type of 'disorder' BECAUSE they've shown a 'shock' can bring it on .. ?
    One might think this OVERWHELMING urge to the point of LOSING EVERYTHING because OF this 'urge' leads one to the 'meth' / cocaine / addiction pathway .. ? The overwhelming urge to do something at even the expense of your children .. ? IF lecithin simple vegetable lecithin is able to treat opium abusers to the extent of a 70% cure rate then IF I was a hoarder I may well think about going on a STRICT vegetarian diet and ramp up my 'choline' intake. Choline is found in HIGH amounts in vegetable lecithin and is PROVEN to affect this addiction pathway.

    • does CHOLINE lead one to RANDOMLY type words in CAPITAL letters for NO apparent REASON?

  6. Choline that is. Lecithin is RECOMMENDED as a 'better source' of choline BECAUSE it is absorbed at four times the rate and retention times of five times longer. Evidenced I believe in the headline below.
    "Here's one for all coffee drinkers! Coffee may actually raise the
    level of acetylcholine."
    " The lecithin treatment suggested by Ma Wen-Chao gave better results. A modification of this treatment in combination with glucose administered intravenously and by mouth, at the height of abstinence symptoms, gave even better results."
    "Of 200 addicts treated in the Hospital for Tropical Diseases, Calcutta, 70% were cured."

  7. We recently adopted a cat from the SPCA in Montreal. He came from a hoarding situation. Although healthy now, the cat is FIV positive. He must remain an indoor cat and not have contact with other felines as a cat fight could activate the disease and infect the other cat. Hoarding is not reasonable. There is one cat left to be adopted from this home who is also FIV positive. He needs a loving home. Call the SPCA in Montreal and ask about Snowflake. :). Regards

    • Although FIV is easily spread, there are studies that indicate that the overall lifespan of the cat is not significantly altered by being diagnosed with FIV.

  8. I have even witnessed a homeless man who walks around with a cat perched on his back. He feeds the cat and it seems happy to be with him, but there are cases where people have way too many animals in a small space, and cannot care for them properly. In those cases the law needs to intervene.

  9. I'm always surprised at the poor living conditions of hoarders. Do they tend to be low-income, or do the high-income hoarders just not get "caught" because there is no reason to investigate?

  10. My neighbour in the one bed room apt next door just got evicted. This women was absolutely nuts, a horrible pig and kept 5 cats. Eight weeks ago one died, after 2 weeks I couldn't deal with the terrible odour from her apt, she kept the dead animal in the living room. With the help of the police and the mental health folks she was put somewhere, we didn't care where. When a clean up crew refused to work in the apt a demolition crew came in. They found 3 more cats that had been strangled. Lovely huh?

  11. There is no limit on the number of pets you can own as long as you can handle it mentally and financially. But if you are just keeping them and not taking care of them, then that is bad.

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