What We Now Know About Animal Hoarding

With compulsive hoarding disorder becoming the subject of a lot of research and officially being classified as its own disorder in the DSM-V as of 2013, we have come to understand much more about compulsive hoarding disorder in recent years. Considering the fact that animals are legally considered property, animal hoarding it would appear that it would qualify as compulsive hoarding disorder. This, however, is yet to be addressed in the psychiatric research available to us today. In light of the fact that compulsive hoarding disorder is now its own diagnosis in the DSM-V, it’s time to take another look at animal hoarding.

In this article, Hoarding Help Central seeks to offer an overview of everything we have learned about animal hoarding in the last 15 years. From the prevalence, types of animal hoarding, typical characteristics of animal hoarding, and treatment for animal hoarding, we will be covering everything we now know about animal hoarding. Let’s get started!

What is Animal Hoarding?

Before we discuss animal hoarding in depth, including its prevalence, different types, characteristics, psychopathology, and treatment options, it is a good idea for you to have an idea of the basic definition of animal hoarding. According to ASPCA.org, animal hoarding “occurs when an individual is housing more animals than he or she can adequately care for. It is a complex issue that encompasses mental health, animal welfare and public safety concerns”.

Put simply, animal hoarding is defined by an inability to provide even minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, shelter, and veterinary care. This often results in animal starvation, illness, or even death. In the majority of cases of animal hoarding, hoarders believe that they are actually helping animals and deny their inability to provide adequate care.

What is the Prevalence of Animal Hoarding?

Now that you have a basic understanding of what animal hoarding is, you might be wondering just how big of a problem it is in today’s society. Although animal hoarding meets the criteria for compulsive hoarding disorder, the DSM-V fell a bit short of listing it as an official subtype. Rather, the DSM-V describes animal hoarding as a condition associated with compulsive hoarding disorder. Regarding the exact prevalence of animal hoarding, estimates from a survey of various animal control agencies and humane societies around the country report that there are around 3,000 reportable cases of animal hoarding each year in the United States.

A number of case reports indicate that somewhere between 31 and 100 percent of individuals that hoard animals also hoard inanimate objects. In these situations, the combined clutter and unsanitary conditions created by the large number of animals interfere with typical daily living and the inability to care for the animals in their possession make it difficult to maintain basic personal hygiene.

Different Types of Animal Hoarding

It has been suggested that there are 3 different methods of which to classify individuals that hoard animals: rescuers, exploiters, and overwhelmed caregivers. Put simply, what differentiates each classification of animal hoarding is the reasoning that a hoarder has for keeping so many animals. Let’s take a look at each of the different types of animal hoarding in-depth.

First, let’s talk about rescuers. Rescuers are often mission-driven animal hoarders who act out of a strong sense of responsibility to save animals from a perceived threat. These individuals often greatly disapprove of euthanasia and show strong fears surrounding the idea of the death of their animals. This is despite the fact that they fail to recognize how poor the quality of care they are providing is. Put simply, this type of hoarder believes that only they and they alone can adequately care for the animals in their possession. Even as a rescuer becomes overwhelmed with the number of animals in their possession, they continue to compulsively collect animals. Another characteristic of a rescuer is that they tend to go to great lengths to avoid the authorities and actively prevent any outside influence over their growing population of animals.

Next, let’s talk about exploiters. Animal hoarding cases that are classified as exploiters tend to be the most serious and difficult to resolve overall. These individuals tend to demonstrate sociopathic characteristics and often collect animals in order to serve their own needs with little emotional attachment to them. These individuals often appear indifferent to the suffering of the animals in their possession and usually lack any sense of empathy for either animals or humans. There is often an extreme denial that there is any problem in the case of an animal exploiter and they tend to deny authority outright. It should be noted that the lack of any emotional attachment to their animals suggests that exploiters may not fit the official diagnostic criteria in place by the DSM-V.

Finally, let’s talk about overwhelmed caregivers. In the case of overwhelmed caregivers, this classification usually involves an individual who owns a large number of animals that were cared for reasonably well until a certain change in circumstances impaired that individual’s ability to adequately care for the animals in their possession. More often than not, these circumstances involve a loss of resources, loss of a job, failing health, or the death of a loved one. These individuals will typically make attempts to provide adequate care for their animals initially but they eventually become overwhelmed and can no longer do so. In this particular classification, the acquisition of these animals tends to be passive in nature and, most often, a large number of animals are produced from among the breeding of animals already in their possession. Unlike rescuers and exploiters, overwhelmed caregivers tend to be capable of an awareness of their problems and minimize them rather than denying them outright. When eventually confronted by authorities, overwhelmed caregivers have fewer problems complying with authority than rescuers or exploiters.

Characteristics of Animal Hoarders

Next, let’s take a look at some of the most common characteristics of animal hoarders. The majority of case studies that have been done surrounding the common characteristics of animal hoarders have outlined a certain commonality surrounding the age and sex of animal hoarders. According to one of the largest reports, 76 percent of animal hoarders were female while about half of those were over the age of 60 years old. In another report by the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, 71 cases of animal hoarding were detailed. A total of 83 percent of these cases were women with the average age in the mid-50s. Although research is lacking in this particular area, animal hoarding appears to develop in middle age or even later in life.

How is Animal Hoarding Treated?

Finally, let’s discuss the best treatment options available for animal hoarding. First, let’s discuss the chances of recidivism in animal hoarding. Many studies have suggested a recidivism rate between 60 and 100 percent. Recidivism refers to the frequency at which animal hoarders will collect animals again after having animals legally removed from their home. This highlights the need for delicate treatment methods when attempting to intervene in an animal hoarding situation. Despite the high estimated rate of recidivism, there are still many cases of animal hoarders who have stopped hoarding animals and have been kept from reacquiring them.

In many cases of animal hoarding, a court will mandate counseling. It should be noted, however, that no validated therapy for animal hoarding is currently available. It should also be noted that most animal hoarders who have been adjudicated for animal hoarding are often reluctant to participate in therapy. This makes this particular strategy challenging. For this reason, the most appropriate course of action when intervening in an animal hoarding situation is thought to be initial engagement of hoarding individuals through community task forces. These community task forces are comprised of a mix of service professionals including fire departments, mental health professionals, housing departments, and legal representatives. These task forces can work together to help offenders in identifying goals that matter to them while requiring compliance with non hoarding behaviors.

An essential part of the treatment process is determining the best approach to providing basic social social support that meets the need for bonding that was originally fulfilled by the presence of animals. It is extremely important that therapists avoid demanding a high level of mentalizing from patients that is beyond their current ability. A higher degree of metacognition is required in order to challenge a patient’s distorted way of thinking, turning them back towards the reality of the situation. Clinical experience in the case of treating animal hoarders suggests that these individuals display deficits in this particular area of thinking.

It should also be noted that cases of “quick fixes” just aren’t going to work in the case of animal hoarders, especially those that are more severe in nature. Court-mandated therapy must be applied carefully in order to avoid the risk of putting animals at future risk or prolonging the time that they are in legal limbo. Given the long-standing nature of the underlying psychopathology present in cases of animal hoarding, a longer-term therapeutic approach is required.

Eliminating Animal Hoarding With Greater Research

Now that we have reviewed everything that we know about animal hoarding thus far, it should be noted that there is still much work to be done. In order to properly care for animals and use the most appropriate treatment methods to intervene in the dangerous behaviors of animal hoarders, knowledge must be applied. While we have learned a great deal about animal hoarding in the last decade, there are still many questions left unanswered. It is Hoarding Help Central’s belief that with further research, we can apply even more useful treatment methods to cases of animal hoarding and protect animals as well as the people whose lives are affected most by this behavior.