Thursday, September 15, 2011

Animal Hoarding

I received a request for my views on animal hoarding and I feel that it is a topic worth exploring. I should start out by explaining that although I took some psychology electives when I was an undergraduate at Northwestern University in the early 70's I do not profess to know the reasons why people engage in such behavior, rather I can look at it from what I am best at; the animal perspective. In most cases I believe that these people are not inherently evil, but rather are goodhearted. They probably do have a genuine love of animals but unfortunately it becomes extreme and eventually an obsession leading to this true mental disorder.

I have seen cases of animal hoarders through the years and one case was particularly disturbing to me, not because of the degree of hoarding but rather seeing a highly intelligent, talented and articulate woman descend into what one might call almost madness. I had dealt with this particular woman for many years with her pet birds she would bring into the practice. She lived over an hour away from the hospital but she was always punctual for her appointments. She was a very interesting person who was an artist and author. We would engage in great conversations and she was always encouraging me to get involved in writing books for children related to veterinary medicine. I never had any inkling that she was engaged in hoarding at that time because she would bring in the same birds for their regular check ups. For whatever reason she did not bring her birds in for their checkups anymore and I did not see her for many years. When I did she her again it was on the news. Her house was being cleared out of the animals she was hoarding. The image I saw of her on television was frightening as she was not the same person I once knew. She was unkempt and disheveled. She truly appeared to be mentally unstable. How could such an intelligent woman who was providing the best in care for her pets descend to this level? I believe she initially felt that she was doing the animals a favor by providing for them but it then gets to the point where the line is crossed and the hoarding behavior begins.

The tragedy in the hoarding stories is that the animals suffer. Our pets provide us great companionship but as the number of pets increases the time one can spend with them individually is obviously limited. They deserve our attention and interaction so it is frustrating for them as it is reduced. They may then begin to engage in various types of abnormal behavior. Dogs may become aggressive, cats may engage in inappropriate elimination behavior or overgrooming, birds may become feather pickers, mutilators or screamers. These and other actions demonstrate the unhappiness they are experiencing. In addition, as we have all seen in the hoarding cases the home is usually disgustingly filthy, exposing the animals (and people) to a unhygienic environment. Another consideration is frequently these animals are poorly fed as there is a lack of funds to purchase enough food or because there is too much work involved in caring for a large number of animals their feeding is haphazardly done. Lack of cleaning leads to the development of bacterial and fungal/mold overgrowth putting man and beast at risk of contracting disease, which invariably happens. It is heartbreaking when you hear of a hoarder's home being cleared out with a number of animals found emaciated, dead or dying. These poor creatures do not deserve such a tragic fate.

As I stated earlier, the hoarders probably started out with good intentions but it eventually spirals out of control with the resultant suffering and death of the animals. Be vigilant if you know or suspect someone may be hoarding animals. Try to get them help because we all know what will result if the hoarding continues unfettered.


  1. Thanks for posting this Doc! Heartbreaking but useful info.

    ~Lilly's Mom

  2. "Thanks, Dr. Sakas. I think this issue is huge. It is as sad and untenable to see animals suffering in the name of "good intentions" as it is at the hands of flat out cruelty.

    But there is a flipside as well. In dealing with the House Rabbit Society (the "HRS"), I encountered articles dealing with "limit laws," which for example would limit the amount of animals you might have in your home to say, four.

    This was extremely problematic to their rescue efforts in various locales, as many volunteers were fostering multiple rabbits over the limit. They tend to keep rabbits in pairs, and adopt them out that way. These folks took great care of their fosters, and merely kept and cared for the animals until they were adopted. The care of the animals was governed by HRS' strict guidelines.

    As a rescuer for many years on an individual level myself (always seem to happen upon strays...they know where I live apparently), I find myself worrying at times about the level of care that multiple animals necessitate, particularly when I come across a stray with unique requirements.

    For example, these days I find myself needing to wake at 4:30 to run a foster pit bull, having to provide myriad and constant objects to chew (otherwise she will eat the entire house), walking her constantly, and running her again at midnight. This is difficult on top of the care for my own pets, but it would also be nigh impossible for me to turn my back on this dog until I find her an appropriate home.

    Those are good intentions, but you can see the slippery slope...for example, if I got sick and could not do what I need to do for the animals effectively, things could go rapidly downhill. I try to be realistic and anticipate such issues, and have backup. But individual rescuers sometimes fail to anticipate things like that and so if they get caught offguard by some problem, the animals suffer. It is no excuse for what they do, but it is a possible explanation. Perhaps that is what happened to your parrot lady, if she looked so disheveled and unkempt.

    This is why I commend you and Niles so highly for your efforts in funding rescue organizations that are better equipped to deal with rescues than certain individuals. The more not-for-profit rescue organization resources exist, I believe the easier it will be to ameliorate the hoarding issue. In my case, I would have loved to know of a rescue that would be equipped to handle a largely untrained and exuberant pit bull, and that I could trust to take her and invest the large amounts of very necessary training and care time, rather than simply putting her down. My first rescue in Chicago was a white cat, who I brought to a shelter and he was immediately put down for having a "cough" of which I saw no evidence while he was in my care. A pit bull is a much more complicated beast, and I have a holy horror of this very lovely dog losing her life arbitrarily.

    Some shelters that could handle her do exist, but not enough, and those that do are overtaxed. So again, thank you and Niles for the efforts in providing resources to worthwhile animal rescue groups. I do believe that is only through such efforts that these problems will be effectively addressed."

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