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Animal Hoarding: When Someone's Love for Animals Becomes an Unhealthy Addiction

Updated on June 30, 2016

Book trailer for Brenda Thornlow's latest novel Life, As Is!

What Defines a Hoarder?

Animal hoarding is a complex and sensitive issue that affects all types of communities and endangers the health and safety of both animals and people. It has been estimated that, in the United States alone, between 900 and 2,000 cases of animal hoarding are reported every year involving almost a half-million animals. There is no discrimination when it comes to what type of animals fall victim to hoarders; they can range from dogs and cats to exotic birds and farm animals.

An animal hoarder is defined as someone who houses more than the typical number of animals for the average household, to the point where the person is unable to provide minimal care. The hoarder is no longer able to afford basic nutrition, adequate and sanitary shelter, and veterinary care resulting in malnutrition, illness and death for the animals, yet the person does not see the risk in which they are putting themselves and others.

There are no similarities when it comes to the age, gender, race or ethnic background of hoarders. Elderly people do tend to be more at risk due to deteriorating health and growing lack of social interaction, however not all hoarders are of a certain age range. The one similarity between all hoarders is their failure to recognize the severity of their situation. They live in absolute denial of the filth in which they and their animals are dwelling. Most of the time animal hoarders sincerely believe they are helping their animals; that their animals are better off living with them than on the street. They are completely unable to see the harm they are inflicting.

There is no clear-cut reason as to why people become animal hoarders. At one time it was believed to be a variation of obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, researchers are now more inclined to believe that attachment disorders (where a person is incapable of forming a healthy bond with another being) along with personality disorders, paranoia, depression and other mental illnesses may be involved. Many hoarders start collecting after suffering from a traumatic incident. Others may believe themselves to be rescuers and that it is their sole purpose to save animals.

Signs That Someone May Be an Animal Hoarder

Hoarders have a tendency to isolate themselves from the community and neglect their own well-being. They often have so many animals they may not even know the total number that live with them. Their homes are deteriorated; windows are dirty, unkempt yard (if they have one); broken furniture, holes in wall and their home is littered with trash including feces. Although they believe they are helping animals, their animals are usually uncared for and are malnourished, emaciated, and not well socialized.

One of the most disturbing facts about hoarders is that many set themselves up as “rescue shelters,” with 501(c) (3) not-for-profit status, and the internet has become the perfect tool for them to advertise. A report from NBC in 2011 discussed a case in Pennsylvania of a woman who set up a shelter, taking in over 7,000 cats but only found homes for 23. When investigators raided her “shelter” they found killing rooms and so many shallow graves it was near impossible to not step on bones.

There are several ways to tell if a rescue group or shelter is run by a hoarder.

  • A legitimate group will allow you to visit their location. If the particular group you are communicating with is unwilling to allow visitors to their location and wants to receive the animal at an area other than the facility (particularly a remote area), this should set off warning signals.

  • A “shelter” run by a hoarder will either be unwilling to disclose the number of animals in its care or may not know the exact number.

  • Be sure to do research as to the percentage of animals that are adopted out by the shelter. Shelters run by hoarders make very little effort to adopt out their animals.

  • Hoarders generally view legitimate shelters as “the enemy.” If the shelter you are communicating with speaks degradingly of a legitimate shelter, this also should set off alarms.

Please note that if a person has many animals it does not mean they are a hoarder. I’ve personally known people with dozens of animals and not only did they keep a clean home but all of their animals were spayed/neutered, well fed and were provided with regular veterinary care. A person in this situation would not be considered an animal hoarder. At times a legitimate rescuer may find him or herself overwhelmed and may end up with more animals than they can care for but are not considered hoarders if they are actively taking steps to rectify their situation. If you are a rescuer who is reading this or know of one in this situation you can contact your local shelter or veterinarian for assistance.

Laws Against Hoarding

As of right now, there are only two states that have laws in place that specifically address animal hoarding: Illinois, with the help of the ASPCA, instituted the Companion Animal Hoarder Act in 2001. This statute involves mandated counseling for those who meet the definition. However, animal hoarding itself is not outlawed. Hawaii instituted a law in 2008 that specifically outlaws hoarding but does not require counseling for the convicted hoarders or prohibit future animal ownership.

In every other state, animal hoarding is covered under the animal cruelty statute, although anti-hoarding legislation has been proposed but not yet passed in many states. These animal cruelty laws require animal caretakers to provide adequate food, water and veterinary care.

Prosecution of an animal hoarder is a very difficult matter. As mentioned earlier, most hoarders are emotionally troubled. Chances are, if the person is prosecuted, once litigation ends, the chances are extremely high that they will go back to their old habit. The best course of action would be for a judge to enforce mandatory counseling and/or prohibit the person from taking in animals in the future. It would best serve all communities if social service agencies joined forces with animal shelters and law enforcement to intervene and rescue animals that fall victim to this situation, then follow up with continuous monitoring to prevent relapse.

If you know someone who is struggling with this issue, please be sure to contact your local humane law enforcement department, animal welfare group or local veterinarian.


(c) 2014 Brenda Thornlow

Brenda Thornlow was voted one of the 50 Great Writers You Should Be Reading for 2015. She is the author of the new fiction series My Life as I Knew It; The Revolving Door; A Godless Love and her memoir, My Short-Lived Life at Being Perfect. Available at Amazon. (Link below)

© 2014 Brenda Thornlow

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    • Bk42author profile image
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      Brenda Thornlow 3 years ago from New York

      Thanks so much for stopping by, Vandynegl! That's so sad to hear. Hopefully, the animals did find happy homes.

    • vandynegl profile image

      vandynegl 3 years ago from Ohio Valley

      Very interesting! We had a woman near where we lived who thought to open a "rescue shelter." And like you said, she ended up being a hoarder! We would drive by and see a large number of animals just tied up outside....even a horse that didn't have proper shelter. It wasn't too long before she was arrested! I'm not sure the outcome of the animals, but it was more positive than what they had!

    • Bk42author profile image
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      Brenda Thornlow 3 years ago from New York

      @ HowTo - thanks so much for reading and sharing! True, they do start out with good intentions but then lose sight.

      @ Flourish - Thanks so much for stopping by! So sad about the man with cancer. That's great that you're able to take in the disabled cats and care for them.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      I used to do spay/neuter outreach volunteer work in my community and have seen sad instances of hoarding. Some of the cats I rescued over the years came from deplorable circumstances with cats living inside walls and floors. People can be so short-sighted, sick, and mean. At other times, their circumstances get ahead of them, like an elderly man with cancer whose family was uninvolved in his care. His cats overpopulated his condo beyond belief. The stench that came out of that place was unbelievable. They suffered and he did too.

      I have 10 mostly older, disabled cats -- many of them leftovers from my spay/neuter and adoption days. The difference I guess is that I am certainly not seeking more and I can afford to care for their special needs.

    • How to - Answers profile image

      L M Reid 3 years ago from Ireland

      Unfortunately these people think they are being kind by taking in so many animals and can not see that the opposite is the reality.

      Thanks for sharing

      Voted up and shared on Twitter

    • Bk42author profile image
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      Brenda Thornlow 3 years ago from New York

      I agree, DDE, it is very sad. And yes, hoarders are different from the average person because there seems to be something emotionally or mentally (or both) preventing them from seeing the destruction they're causing.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Animal hoarding is sad, I have once seen a documentary this woman had many cats and could barely afford to feed them and her home became their home and that was a terrible sight. There should be limits and careful thought into what wants out of life then again hoarders are different.

    • Bk42author profile image
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      Brenda Thornlow 3 years ago from New York

      Ver true, Laura!

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      I agree Laura, I already referred to the problem of puppy farms in my comment.

    • Lauranimal profile image

      Lauranimal 3 years ago from So. California

      Hadn't signed in before posting this earlier, hope it doesn't post twice:

      The worst hoarders, abusers, torturers, and continual contributors on a massive scale to the dog/cat overpopulation problem, are BREEDERS, most notably puppy mills. They are the main reason there are all these homeless animals in need of homes and why some people who cannot turn any away become neglectful hoarders. The breeders have got to be stopped, starting with puppy mills. Point the primary finger where it belongs, please, at the cause, not a terrible symptom. Of course abusive hoarders should be found, stopped and the animals rescued, but that's like sticking your finger in a hole in a levee to stop a huge flood... the flood comes anyway. The animals have got to stop bearing the brunt of people's horrible mistakes and habits.

    • profile image

      Lauranimal 3 years ago

      The worst hoarders, abusers, torturers, and continual contributors on a massive scale to the dog/cat overpopulation problem, are BREEDERS, most notably puppy mills. They are the main reason there are all these homeless animals in need of homes and why some people who cannot turn any away become neglectful hoarders. The breeders have got to be stopped, starting with puppy mills. Point the primary finger where it belongs, please, at the cause, not a terrible symptom. Of course abusive hoarders should be found, stopped and the animals rescued, but that's like sticking your finger in a hole in a levee to stop a huge flood... the flood comes anyway. The animals have got to stop bearing the brunt of people's horrible mistakes and habits.

    • Bk42author profile image
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      Brenda Thornlow 3 years ago from New York

      Eddy & Faith...Thank you so much for reading and sharing! Enjoy your weekend!

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 3 years ago from southern USA

      It does seem to sadly becoming very common. Animal rescue is a great cause, but there is a big difference in animal hoarding. I believe it is some sort of sickness or obsession with the love of animals to the extent the person is blind as to their illness not really being beneficial to all of the animals to attempt to care for indeed.

      Up and more, pinning and tweeting

      Blessings,

      Faith Reaper

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 3 years ago from Wales

      This obsession sadly is all too common. Thanks for bringing this subject to light on here. Voting up and sharing.

      Eddy.

    • Bk42author profile image
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      Brenda Thornlow 3 years ago from New York

      Thank you, Terry! :)

    • THarman7 profile image

      Terry Harman 3 years ago from Lacey Washington

      Great hub and interesting too! I didn't know the specifics of animal hoarding but I've seen in first hand and it is very sad not only for the animal but also for the person hoarding. Thanks for writing on the subject and bring more attention to it!

    • Bk42author profile image
      Author

      Brenda Thornlow 3 years ago from New York

      Jodah - That is so horrible about the woman with the poodles! People with that problem absolutely need counseling and it probably is best if they're banned from owning anymore animals. There's always a chance they can fall back into to the same destructive pattern. I have an aunt that owns a bunch of dogs and cats but she's not a hoarder either. She just loves and animals and they're very well taken care of she keeps her home spotless. We leave our Maltese with her when we go on vacation and he has the time of his life! I'll definitely check out your hub, it sounds interesting! Thanks so much for stopping by!

      @Cecile - It definitely does seem like a mental imbalance, and so true, it is a cry for help. Family members and friends may be worried about saying something for fear they get upset or reporting, but not saying anything is doing more harm to everyone involved. Thanks so much for stopping by!

    • cecileportilla profile image

      Cecile Portilla 3 years ago from West Orange, New Jersey

      Hi bK32author

      This happens more often than we know and as you correctly point out there might be mental illness involved. Families who see their loved ones engaging in these behaviors should realize that it is a cry for help.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Very good hub Bk4, animal hoarding is also a big problem here in Australia. There have been a number of people charged recently for cruelty to animals. One woman kept over 100 poodles and they had never been clipped or bathed so their fur was matted into dreadlocks and filthy. Most are banned from having animals again after being charged. Puppy farms are also a problem, because there is so much money to be made from the sale. Some people breed so many that they can't provide adequate care, and sell on the Internet so people never visit their kennel. It is difficult to stamp this out.

      We have four dogs and four cats, but I don't think we are hoarders. My hub "animals Role in the Healing Process" may be of interest to you. Voted up.

    • Bk42author profile image
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      Brenda Thornlow 3 years ago from New York

      So heart breaking. They really are doing more damage than anything else. Thank you and have a great weekend, Billy!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Brenda, I have seen this firsthand a long time ago, and it is sad and quite frankly it makes me angry. Thanks for writing about this and raising awareness.

    • Bk42author profile image
      Author

      Brenda Thornlow 3 years ago from New York

      Thank you both so much for reading and sharing! It is very sad. Until I read up on it recently I never fully understood the gravity of the situation.

    • DrMark1961 profile image

      Dr Mark 3 years ago from The Beach of Brazil

      Those images are really sad. Thanks for sharing this. Pinning.

    • ologsinquito profile image

      ologsinquito 3 years ago from USA

      That is a very sad story about the woman with too many cats. I can see how some people might get caught up in the rescue aspect, but after a certain limit it becomes unworkable. Our one dog is a lot of work. I can't imagine having many more pets.