Animal hoarding

The scene is a sad one – a dilapidated house filled with countless cats.

When you first walk in the door, the smell catches you off guard. It’s hard to breathe because of the ammonia and you can see feces and other debris scattered throughout the dingy living room. All you can hear are the plaintive cries of cats in every room. A few hop up on window ledges and tattered chesterfield arms as you approach – they look mangy and some of them seem really sick.

These animals have not been abandoned – their owner lives amidst the neglect and continues to bring home more and more cats every few months. She is an animal hoarder.

Animal hoarding is a psychiatric disorder in which sufferers keep higher than usual numbers of animals without the ability to properly house or care for them. At the same time, animal hoarders lack the insight to realize their animals are not receiving appropriate care.

Of course, the result of animal hoarding is dangerous to the health of both the animals and the people living with them. Very often, animals are neglected to the point of starvation, illness or death and the lack of sanitation can be a breeding ground for many diseases affecting both animal and human.

It should be noted, that animal hoarders are not being deliberately cruel or inappropriate to their pets. Generally, animal hoarders are deeply attached to their pets and may even feel a parental love for them. Usually, they cannot see that the animals are not receiving the proper care.

Hoarding is a serious psychiatric disorder. In the past I have written about general hoarding of non-living items, but animal hoarding is increasingly in the news and is somewhat different. With general hoarding, the individual feels extreme anxiety at the thought of discarding items. There is pronounced fear of potential negative consequences of getting rid of hoarded things.

Both general and animal hoarding involve compulsion and can occur either as a symptom of another psychiatric disorder such as obsessive compulsive disorder, or on its own. Some experts believe animal hoarding can involve a highly focused psychotic delusion.

As is the case for most mental health conditions, an exact cause has not yet been identified for animal hoarding. Both genetic and environmental factors are thought to play a role.

Unfortunately, there has not been abundant research into this specific form of hoarding behaviour and it is very difficult to treat. Most people with this condition will begin hoarding again even if they are caught many times with neglected animals in their homes.

A major barrier to treatment of any compulsive hoarding is unwillingness on the part of the patient to change or to accept there is a problem.

Treatment could range from behavioural therapy for some, to medication if the compulsion is thought to be delusional or resulting from another treatable mental illness. Many times, the individual simply has to have his or her access to animals forcibly limited to prevent recurring harm.

If you suspect someone of animal hoarding, contact the local humane society and try to find medical help for the person who needs it.

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About the Author

Paul Latimer has over 25 years experience in clinical practice, research, and administration.

After obtaining his medical degree from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, he did psychiatric training at Queen's, Oxford and Temple Universities. After his residency he did a doctorate in medical science at McMaster University where he was also a Medical Research Council of Canada Scholar.

Since 1983 he has been practicing psychiatry in Kelowna, BC, where he has held many administrative positions and conducted numerous clinical trials.

He has published many scientific papers and one book on the psychophysiology of the functional bowel disorders.

He is an avid photographer, skier and outdoorsman.

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The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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