October 15, 2002

 

 Animal hoarding: A public health problem veterinarians can take a lead role in solving

Posted on Oct. 1, 2002

 

he stories are horrific—floors soaked in urine and covered in feces, cats and dogs living among carcasses, dozens of animals so malnourished and ill they must be euthanatized—but alarmingly common.

Experts estimate that there at least 700 new cases of animal hoarding, sometimes called collecting, every year in the United States. It is not well understood what causes individuals to hoard animals, but the tragic consequences for the animals and humans involved are preventable, said Dr. Gary Patronek, director of the Tufts University Center for Animals and Public Policy and the founder of the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium.

Dr. Patronek explained that individuals who are prone to animal hoarding often seek out veterinarians and other people who work with animals.

"(Veterinarians) may become unwitting enablers," he said, explaining that a well-meaning veterinarian who regularly refers unwanted animals to a client or staff member and sends samples of food or supplies home with that person may be facilitating the accumulation of an unmanageable number of animals.

But an astute veterinarian may be able to identify the problem early on and intervene before things get out of control.

Understanding the problem
The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium was established in 1997 by an interdisciplinary group that includes a veterinarian, a physician, a psychologist, social workers, and a humane society leader to study the problem, increase awareness among mental health and social services professionals and municipal officials, and develop more effective interventions.

The consortium defines an animal hoarder as someone who has:

  • Accumulated a large number of animals, overwhelming that person's ability to provide even minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, and veterinary care
  • Failed to acknowledge the deteriorating condition of the animals (including disease, starvation, and even death) and household environment (severe overcrowding, very unsanitary conditions)
  • Failed to recognize the negative effect of the collection on his or her own health and well-being, and on that of other household members

Though some humane organizations refer to animal hoarders as "collectors," the term does not accurately describe the behavior and may undermine efforts to gain recognition of animal hoarding as a serious public health problem. According to the consortium, hoarding denotes a pathological condition, while collecting denotes a benign hobby.

Dr. Patronek said it is extremely important that veterinarians and other professionals recognize, that despite the animal hoarder's claims of extreme love and concern for the animals, animal hoarding is more than just a misguided attempt at rescuing animals.

"It's not about a legitimate shelter or animal rescue," he said. "It's not about the animals; it's about fulfilling a human need."

In fact, many experts suspect there may be psychologic problems that lead to animal hoarding. An article that appeared in Psychiatric Times suggests that animal hoarding may be symptomatic of psychologic disorders such as dementia, addiction, attachment disorder, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Additionally, animal hoarding can create severe hazards to the health of the hoarder, family members, and the animals involved.

Household conditions often deteriorate to the point where appliances and utilities are not functioning, and proper food preparation and basic sanitation measures become impossible, according to an article in Municipal Lawyer magazine by the consortium. There may also be rodent or insect infestations, fire hazards, or dangerously high concentrations of ammonia in the house.

"These conditions are unlivable for people and animals," Dr. Patronek said. "It's not a humane environment."

Many animal hoarders are repeat offenders. Difficulty prosecuting cases, light punishments, and a lack of follow-up supervision often lead animal hoarders to begin accumulating animals shortly after their previous animals are confiscated.

"The drive to do this is so strong that recidivism is almost 100 percent," Dr. Patronek said.

Successful intervention and prevention
Embarrassment about the condition of their household or fear of persecution often causes animal hoarders to become isolated from friends and family. In these situations, a veterinarian can be a lifeline, according to experts.

The first step is recognizing when an individual has a problem.

Stereotypes such as the "cat lady" may not be useful, because animal hoarders come from all social and demographic backgrounds. Although hoarders tend to be socioeconomically disadvantaged people, there have been cases where working professionals such as college professors, nurses, bankers, and even a few veterinarians were discovered to be hoarding.

Also animal hoarders often accumulate multiple species, though cats and dogs are the most common victims. Cats are involved in 65 percent of the cases and dogs are involved in 60 percent of the cases, according to a study by Dr. Patronek that appeared in Public Health Reports.

The behavior of the individual and condition of the animals they bring in are the best tip-offs, Dr. Patronek said. For example, a client may claim to have just found or rescued an animal in obviously deplorable condition, but the condition of the animal—including a strong odor of urine, overgrown nails, and muscle atrophy—may be more indicative of confinement in filthy conditions than wandering the streets.

To avoid enabling a hoarder, Dr. Patronek warned that veterinarians should be careful about frequently referring unwanted pets to a client or staff member, or providing free supplies, without knowing the situation.

Once an animal hoarder has been identified, there are a variety of steps the veterinarian can take. Veterinarians can work to gain the trust of the individual and gently question them to learn more about the situation.

Veterinarians should understand that local ordinances on public health, building and sanitary codes, animal control, and elder and child abuse, may all be called upon to help with intervention, Dr. Patronek said. In some states, veterinarians may be required to report abuse or other violations.

The AVMA policy on animal abuse and neglect also encourages veterinarians to report abuse or neglect. The policy states:

The AVMA recognizes that veterinarians may observe cases of animal abuse or neglect as defined by federal or state laws, or local ordinances. When these situations cannot be resolved through education, the AVMA considers it the responsibility of the veterinarian to report such cases to appropriate authorities. Disclosures may be necessary to protect the health and welfare of animals and people. Veterinarians should be aware that accurate record keeping and documentation of these cases are invaluable.

Developing relationships with local social service, public health, and enforcement agencies is also important, he said, explaining that successful interventions generally require a team approach.

"The communities who seem to handle these situations better are the ones that take a task force approach," Dr. Patronek said.

By volunteering to provide training for local agencies, veterinarians can advocate preventive measures and improve the agencies' intervention techniques.

For more information on animal hoarding or the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, visit www.tufts.edu/vet/cfa/hoarding.html.