Pet hoarding is now a bonafide mental illness. The bible for psychiatrists, DSM Manual (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), indeed lists hoarding and the sub-category of pet or animal hoarding as unique mental illnesses. The disorder is defined as keeping an unusual number of pets without possessing the ability to properly house or care for them, while simultaneously denying this inability. Interestingly, hoarding is not considered a symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder or obsessive compulsive personality disorder anymore -- it is now ranked among compulsive spectrum disorders.
Anyone can become a pet hoarder, but statistically, most are female, half are over age 60, and most live alone. But, do be careful – just because someone is female, over 60, and has many pets does not mean they have a mental illness!
Pet hoarding almost always starts out slowly with a manageable handful of pets, but over time the number of animals becomes not only unmanageable, but completely out-of-control and a dangerous health hazard to both the pet owner and the pets. So, are there red flags that a pet owner situation is slipping, or has slipped, from manageable and within the bounds of normal, to being a situation requiring immediate intervention? Yes, absolutely.
According to the DSM Manual, the Mayo Clinic, and other medical organizations that treat pet hoarders, here are the fundamental warning signs.
- Unable to provide minimal levels of nutrition, sanitation, shelter and veterinary care.
- In denial about both his or her inability to provide care and about the impact of that failure on the animals, their home and other people who live on the property.
- In almost 70% of investigated cases, animal feces and urine are present in the hoarder’s home.
- Sick or dead animals were discovered on the premises in 80% of the cases; and in 60% of these cases, hoarders denied there was a problem.
- Extreme difficulty parting with an animal.
- Home is deteriorated (i.e., dirty windows, broken furniture, holes in wall and floor, extreme clutter).
- Isolated from the community (does not socialize or easily permit admission into residence) and appear to also neglect themselves.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) also cites these warning signs:
- They have numerous animals and may not know the total number of animals in their care.
- Animals are emaciated, lethargic and/or not well socialized.
- Fleas and vermin are present.
Gary Patronek, VMD, PhD and founder of the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (HARC) says most pet hoarders fall into one of three categories:
Overwhelmed caregivers: They begin rescuing or helping animals in a small way and/or acquire pets passively but become overwhelmed by their growing pet population and inability to say no. People in this category tend to be the most willing to consider downsizing.
Rescuer hoarders: The people in this group are driven by an extreme sense of mission. Patronek says a profound fear of death and/or loss drives them. Caring for animals provides a strong sense of identity; losing the animals is a loss of who they are. Negotiated settlements, sometimes coupled with the threat of prosecution, work best here.
Exploiter hoarders: These people may be true sociopaths. Exploiter hoarders lack empathy for people or animals. They are manipulative, cunning and can be vicious. Prosecuting them with every legal option is often the only path to successful intervention. (Do remember however that being a sociopath is also a mental illness.)
If you suspect a hoarding situation it is your duty to report the situation to your local authorities, which can be your local humane society, animal control agency or police department. Even if this person is someone you love and you fear they may get into legal trouble, the situation is inhumane for all involved and must be brought to an end as soon as possible.
Help is available to people suffering from pet hoarding, but part of the definition of a pet hoarder is denial, so it really does take an outside person to make the first move.
As the mental illness of pet hoarding continues to be understood, less criminal charges will be levied and more humane intervention will be employed. The HARC program mentioned above provides a wealth of information as well as humane methods of intervention that extend beyond legal recourse, for people and organizations concerned about pet hoarding.