What To Do If I Suspect My Friend/Family Member/Neighbor is an Animal Hoarder?
An often overlooked and underreported source of animal cruelty is animal hoarding. Animal hoarding tends to take place in private places like the home and can be challenging to detect, even for friends and family. However, due to the large number of animals involved and the destructive impact animal hoarding has on human well-being, it is crucial to recognize hoarding and to get appropriate intervention to reduce human and animal suffering.
What is Animal Hoarding?
Animal hoarding is a variation of hoarding disorder, a psychological condition. According to the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (HARC), animal hoarding is defined by four main characteristics:
- The failure to provide minimal standards of sanitation, space, nutrition and veterinary care for the animals in one’s care;
- An inability to recognize the effects of this failure on the welfare of the animals, human members of the household, and the environment;
- Obsessive attempts to accumulate or maintain a collection of animals in the face of progressively deteriorating conditions; and
- Denial or minimization of problems and living conditions for people and animals.
In short, hoarders cannot adequately care for the animals in their possession. Animals may suffer from illness due to being malnourished or exposed to built up excrement in the home. A buildup of urine can cause ammonia burns to an animal’s skin and eyes. Accumulation of feces can lead to bacterial infections and illness. Additionally, animals in hoarding situations tend to be undersocialized, exhibiting a fear response to humans that can become aggressive, leading to a potential public safety issue in addition to the public health issues caused by excessive accumulation of animals.
Types of Hoarders
There are three general types of hoarders: the overwhelmed caregiver, the rescuer, and the exploiter.
The Overwhelmed Caregiver
The overwhelmed caregiver is a type of hoarder who owns a large number of animals that were likely reasonably well taken care of until a significant change in life circumstances compromised the person’s ability to care for the animals properly. These circumstances may include job loss, death of a loved one, or diagnosis of a serious illness. The problem is compounded when the individual has unaltered companion animals who breed, passively adding to the total amount of animals in the home and therefore making caregiving that much more difficult. Typically isolated, this type of hoarder can be difficult to spot and, therefore, hard to help. However, when confronted by an authority figure, this individual usually has fewer problems accepting help than the rescuer-hoarder or exploiter-hoarder.
The rescuer type of hoarder can be an individual or, most commonly, an individual posing as an organization. This hoarder type is generally mission-driven, aiming to save as many animals as possible from a presumed threat (often euthanasia). While they may care deeply for their animals, they also tend to believe that only they can adequately care for the animals and fail to recognize the poor standard of living to which their animals are reduced. Acquiring new animals tends to take place by taking on additional animals they perceive to need rescue, including animals from classified ads, shelters with higher-than-average euthanasia rates, and individuals looking to rehome their animals, as well as by taking in stray animals. They may even register as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit rescue or sanctuary, acquiring animals and donations from unsuspecting individuals under the guise of being a legitimate organization. Due to the mission-driven nature of their hoarding, rescuer-hoarders may go to great lengths to avoid intervention from authorities.
Exploiter-hoarders are not driven by love or compassion for the animals they hoard. Instead, exploiter-hoarders tend to acquire animals for their own needs with little or no attachment to the animals themselves. Often, their personalities are charming, but they tend to lack remorse or guilt for the treatment of animals in their care. Their focus on gaining what they need from hoarding the animals and their indifference to the animals themselves makes them more likely to avoid detection actively. An example of an exploiter-hoarder is a puppy mill operator or backyard breeder.
How to Spot a Hoarder
A large number of animals is not necessarily indicative of a hoarder. For instance, in communities with access to community cat programs, an individual or group of individuals may care for a large population of outdoor semi-feral or feral cats but may have the connections and resources necessary to keep the situation under control. The problem begins when a situation spins out of control.
The ASPCA lists the following ways to detect an individual hoarder:
- They have numerous animals and may not know the total number in their care;
- Their home is in rough shape and often deteriorating further, including dirty windows, broken furniture, holes in the wall and floor, and extremely cluttered surroundings;
- There is a strong smell of ammonia or feces in or around the home;
- The floors of the home may be covered in dried feces, urine, vomit, etc.;
- Animals are emaciated, lethargic, and not well socialized;
- Fleas and rodents are present in or around the home;
- The individual is isolated from the community and appears to be neglecting their own needs;
- The individual insists all or most of the animals in their care are happy and healthy, even when there are clear signs of distress and illness.
The ASPCA lists the following ways to detect an organizational hoarder:
- The group is unwilling to let visitors see the location where the animals are kept or bred (pay particular attention to the background of photos posted on social media and websites);
- The group will not disclose the number of animals in its care and makes little effort to adopt animals out;
- More animals are continually taken in, despite the poor condition of existing animals;
- Legitimate shelters and rescue organizations are viewed as the enemy;
- Animals may be received or sold at a remote location rather than at the group’s actual facility if it exists.
What To Do When You Suspect Someone in Your Life or Neighborhood is Hoarding Animals
Individuals with hoarding disorder have a diagnosable illness. They are likely entirely unaware of the dysfunction involved in their behavior or the harm they are causing to the animals and themselves. Encourage them to seek help from a mental health professional, assuring them that seeking help is what is best for the animals in their care. Please note, when dealing with an exploiter-hoarder, you may need to skip an encouragement of self-help entirely and rely directly on the authorities.
They may be unwilling to accept help, and if that is the case, your first call should be to your local police department or animal control to initiate an investigation. Because animal hoarding is a multifaceted problem, the solution does not end with the police or animal control. Other important contacts include:
Social Services Groups - Different social services may need to be involved depending on who is in the household, such as adult protective services for elderly individuals and child protective services for children in the home.
Health Department - The state health department or local environmental health department may need to be contacted for more information on the clean-up of the house.
Local Animal Shelters - Removing animals from a hoarding situation is time and resource-intensive, even for the most sophisticated animal shelters. Volunteering your time to these organizations or donating to assist in their operational costs goes a long way in providing care for the victims of animal hoarding.
What To Do if You Suspect You May Have a Hoarding Problem
Know that it is okay to need and accept help. Contact a mental health professional as well as an appropriate social services agency to get started on the road to recovery.