The Need for a New Approach to Animal Hoarding

At Hoarding Help Central, we understand that animal hoarding is an often misunderstood, yet very important, problem that affects not only animal welfare but human welfare as well. Animal hoarding is, in fact, to blame for significant amounts of animal suffering and property damage. Although animal hoarding is often associated with adult self-neglect, animal hoarding can also place children, dependent adults, and elders at serious risk. Today, we will be detailing what animal hoarding is, who it affects, and why there is a need for a new approach to animal hoarding. Let’s get started!

What is Animal Hoarding?

So what is animal hoarding? Put simply, animal hoarding can be defined based on four main characteristics. First, animal hoarding involves the failure to provide the minimal standards of space, nutrition, sanitation, and veterinary care for animals in the owner’s possession. Secondly, animal hoarding involves the inability to recognize the impacts of this failure on the welfare of the animals in question, the human members of the home, and the environment itself. Third, animal hoarding is associated with obsessive attempts to acquire and maintain a collection of animals within the home despite the deterioration of adequate living conditions. Finally, animal hoarding involves either the complete denial or minimization of problems and living conditions for both animals and humans.

It should be noted that animal hoarding occurs in every community and there are thousands of cases which involve hundreds of thousands of animal victims being involved. Beyond that, many more cases are likely to go completely unreported. Despite the frequency and cost of these cases, most communities are incredibly unprepared to handle cases of animal hoarding effectively when they occur. Further, few, if any, have preventative strategies put in place. All too often, such cases are commonly left to animal shelters and humane societies to resolve either through prosecution for cruelty to the animals in question. This approach often fails to be effective long-term as it involves ignoring the multi-faceted nature of animal hoarding. For this reason, these behaviors are often repeated in the future.

Why Animal Hoarding Interventions Typically Fail

So why do most animal hoarding interventions fail? There are two main reasons for this. First, although prosecution can play an important role in promptly rescuing and removing animals from dangerous situations, it fails to address the important mental health component associated with animal hoarding behavior. In this way, it isn’t likely to result in a stop to the behavior and they are likely to be acted out again. Secondly, animal welfare agencies are often unprepared to deal with state and local bodies and municipal agencies. This is a crucial failure as these entities need to be mobilized in a well-coordinated manner in order to achieve an effective intervention. These entities may include social services and community mental health services, zoning boards, public health and sanitation, animal law enforcement, and police. Unfortunately, incidences of municipal agencies, animal welfare agencies, and human health infrastructure working together effectively to offer effective intervention are few and far inbetween. For these reasons, an interdisciplinary approach that can draw on a variety of solutions is needed.

Taking a Different Approach to Animal Hoarding Intervention

Most often, as evidenced by research, effective interventional approaches to animal hoarding are interdisciplinary. Interdisciplinary approaches to animal hoarding involve the use of a range of municipal, private, and state agencies that are dedicated to animal, human, health, legal, and environmental concerns collaborate throughout the entire scope of the case. From the investigation to long-term monitoring of the situation, these agencies work closely together to provide effective intervention for animal hoarders. This approach, because it is so collaborative, tends to have the best results in preventing a return to this behavior in the future.

The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, established in 1997 in Massachusetts, was founded in order to better characterize the sociological and psychological aspects of animal hoarding. In their approach, this organization aims to develop improved strategies for effective intervention and follows an interdisciplinary approach. The interdisciplinary research team includes a psychologist, psychiatrist, a sociologist, a veterinarian/epidemiologist, three social workers, and at least one member of humane law enforcement.

Since the formation of The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, the organization has published several papers on animal hoarding intervention as well as forming guidelines for both case management and intervention. The organization has also developed a website for both the public, animal welfare agencies, and human health professionals. Unfortunately, despite all of the measures taken by The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, there has been nothing comprehensive that exists to guide agencies in forming an interdisciplinary approach in regards to animal hoarding.

So what can be done regarding taking an interdisciplinary approach to animal hoarding intervention? Recently, The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium sought to solve this problem by creating a manual focused around the need for an interdisciplinary approach to animal hoarding. Today, Hoarding Help Central will be looking at their recommendations in order to share them with you. Let’s take a closer look.

Creating an Interdisciplinary Approach to Animal Hoarding

In The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium’s manual, they state the importance of understanding the variety of agency stakeholders that may be involved in an animal hoarding case. It is important, when creating an interdisciplinary approach to animal hoarding, that we have an understanding of who these stakeholders are, what resources they can provide, where these agencies overlap, and how they may conflict with one another.

The first chapter of the manual also seeks to address which group is better suited for each phase of the intervention process, what order each agency should work in, and how those involved in addressing the animal hoarding problem can get a comprehensive view of all agency stakeholders. As summed up by the manual, an integrated approach to animal hoarding intervention cannot happen unless the appropriate players are working together collaboratively and the first step in making that possible is to understand who those players are.

Barriers to an Interdisciplinary Approach

As highlighted by the manual, in spite of the complex and interdisciplinary nature of most animal hoarding cases, intervention is typically one-dimensional- being handled by animal welfare agencies alone from start to finish. All too often, these agencies work alone and their focus tends to be on utilizing state statutes which prohibit the bad treatment and neglect of animals. There are a few different reasons for this:

  • It is, unfortunately, not widely recognized how animal hoarding places both people and communities at risk, as well as animals.
  • Concerns about animal hoarding are often placed on the animals. For this reason, the focus on intervention is often placed on helping the animals and, as a result, do not involve agencies that focus on human health, welfare, and environmental problems.
  • Most people do not understand that animal hoarding may be associated with, and maybe even caused by, a range of physical and psychological disorders.
  • Hoarded animals are often viewed as the problem in animal hoarding as opposed to a symptom of the real problem.
  • The media tends to present animal hoarders as “pet owners that love animals too much” or as well-intentioned individuals who sought to help animals but became overwhelmed.
  • Animal agencies are often the most likely to respond to cases of animal hoarding as the suffering of animals is much more obvious than other threats or risks.

As presented by the manual, these barriers, although prevalent, can certainly be overcome with a more thorough understanding of those affected by animal hoarding, what each stakeholder can contribute in the intervention process, and recognizing all parties that can help.

Who Should Be Involved in the Animal Hoarding Intervention Process

Now that we have an understanding of the barriers to an interdisciplinary approach when dealing with an animal hoarding problem,we should detail who should be involved in the animal hoarding intervention process. Due to the fact that a single animal hoarding case can have such a negative impact on so many aspects of human and community welfare and health, the potential list of stakeholders who should be involved is broad. Of the agencies who can provide crucial expertise and important resources to aid in an effective intervention, many focus on animal welfare, mental health, human health, law enforcement, housing, the environment, and sanitation.

Although it is important to understand what each agency is responsible for, there is more that should be done in order to create a truly interdisciplinary approach to animal hoarding. Equally important is the need for understanding how to navigate within each agency. An understanding of agency structure is needed due to the fact that, in most cases, the first person to answer the phone is not the primary responder or decision maker. Further, even once a primary responder is identified, other more internal barriers to cooperation may remain.

So who should be involved in the animal hoarding intervention process when creating an interdisciplinary approach? Those who should be involved include but are not limited to:

  • Agencies working on the behalf of animals (private humane societies with humane law enforcement agents, municipal animal care and control agencies, animal wardens, national animal protection groups, animal rights groups, and animal rescue groups)
  • Human health and mental health departments
  • Social services (adult protective services and child protective services)
  • Local law enforcement (local police, state police, sheriff’s department, district attorney or local prosecutor)
  • Legal aid
  • Code enforcement
  • The Department of Agriculture

Creating Interdisciplinary Responses Through Interagency Cooperation

While each of the agencies have valuable expertise and important resources that can be focused on providing intervention in the case of animal hoarding, most communities have not found ways to bring these agencies together in order to create cooperative working agreements that result in comprehensive solutions. There are four main obstacles that challenge the ability of these agencies to work collaboratively. These include:

  • Conflicting missions: Different stakeholders have different missions regarding animal hoarding intervention. When these opposing missions result in conflict, it makes agencies reluctant to work collaboratively with other agencies. In order to resolve this obstacle, there must be a common understanding of conflicting missions. This will create agreements concerning how each agency will operate in ways that support each other rather than directly conflict with them.
  • Cost: Agencies may be reluctant to participate collaboratively due to the perceived costs. In order to minimize this obstacle, stakeholders must be educated about the true costs of animal hoarding cases.
  • Terminology: Differences in language can make it difficult for agencies to work collaboratively even when they are able to share information with each other. This obstacle can be minimized by supporting a common understanding of what language to use with which agency concerning the animal hoarding case.
  • Order of things: Agencies may be reluctant to cooperate due to being called in at the wrong time in the intervention process when they do not have the authority to act accordingly. This obstacle can be minimized by understanding who to involve in each phase of the intervention process and to form agreements that adequately define roles.

Although each of these obstacles present challenges to agencies working collaboratively on animal hoarding cases, each of these obstacles can be overcome in the ways highlighted above.

A Collaborative Approach is the Best Approach to Animal Hoarding Intervention

Each case of animal hoarding needs the collaborative efforts of various agencies in order to properly address the problem. When these agencies are able to work collaboratively, the chances of this behavior being continued in the future are minimized. The first step in adequately forming an interdisciplinary approach to animal hoarding is recognizing who should be involved.

Secondly, as highlighted by The Hoarding of Animal Research Consortium’s manual, the conflicts presented by collaborative efforts should be addressed. When these obstacles are addressed, the chances of a successful interdisciplinary intervention are much higher. In order to truly make a difference in combating animal hoarding, a new approach is needed. It is Hoarding Help Central’s hope that a greater focus will be placed on utilizing a team effort in regards to animal hoarding intervention. The manual created by The Hoarding of Animal Research Consortium seems to be a positive first step in the right direction.