Charateristics of Animal Hoarding
In a 1999 study Dr. Patronek, Professor at Tufts University defined animal hoarders:
People who accumulate a large number of animals; fail to provide minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation and veterinary care; and fail to act on the deteriorating condition of the animals, the environment, and their own health.
Hoarders justify their behavior with the view that the animals are surrogate children and that no one else can care for them. They harbor a fear that if they seek help the animals will be euthanized.
More recently, in a publication from the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, Animal Hoarding: Structuring interdisciplinary responses to help people, animals and communities at risk, Patronek and his cohorts list four key characteristics:
- Failure to provide minimal standards of sanitation, space, nutrition, and veterinary care for the animals
- Inability to recognize the effects of this failure on the welfare of the animals, human members of the household, and the environment
- Obsessive attempts to accumulate or maintain a collection of animals in the face of progressively deteriorating conditions
- Denial or minimization of problems and living conditions for people and animals
“Although the case of a dog being violently killed is shocking, in animal hoarding cases the suffering can be felt by hundreds of animals for months and months on end,” said Randall Lockwood, Ph.D.Thousands of animals suffer and some die in squalid surroundings, devoid of adequate food and water, yet, the owners insist nothing is wrong. Standing in three inches of feces, breathing acrid ammonia in the air, and in plain view of dead and dying dogs, one woman said, “I never hurt any dogs, I love my babies. The fact is I protect them.”
Conditions often become extreme before law enforcement officials can glean enough evidence for a search warrant. “The biggest problem is we are never allowed access to the house until it becomes so severe that something tragic happens,” has been quoted by Law Enforcement. Animal Rescue charities or dog pounds are left to cover the cost of rescuing, treating, housing, feeding, and in some cases euthanizing the animals.
Close friends and families, generally the first to know when the act of ‘loving animals’ changes to ‘hoarding animals,’ seldom have the information and understanding needed to effectively intervene. Learning about animal hoarding, understanding its characteristics, how it develops, interventions, and preventions can help both the people involved and the animals.
Early intervention is the key to preventing the suffering caused by animal hoarding; yet, those who see the neglect in its early stages (friends, relatives, neighbors) often misunderstand it and fail to report it until conditions become tragic. Obsessive hoarding consumes all available resources of time, money, and emotion; and eventually squeezing family and friends out of the picture. Taking action early on, while the door is still open. Intervention can come in many forms but must be thoughtful and respectful.
Social isolation sets in as acquaintances eventually become exasperated and give up their failed attempts to help. People who hoard animals may use them to fulfill emotional needs that had been previously met by human interaction, according to recent studies.
How Animal Hoarding Develops
The truth is no one knows. Animal hoarding research is in its infancy and although new information is produced on a regular basis there is so much yet to be learned. Factors that can contribute to animal hoarding fall into three categories: personal, household and community.
Personal factors involve the individual and his or her mental and emotional state. Although there exists no official diagnosis for animal hoarding in the DSM-IV-TR (diagnostic manual used by psychologists), researchers have identified diagnostic models to help understand the phenomenon, although not all animal hoarders fit neatly in one model or the other.
The models commonly sited are:
The Addictions Model
Elements of the addiction model which are found in animal hoarding cases include: preoccupation with the addiction; denial about the addiction and its effects; isolation; claims of persecution; excuses for the behavior; and self-neglect.
The Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Model
This model may be used because hoarding of inanimate objects is a primary symptom for many who suffer with OCD, and many animal hoarders are found to have hoarded inanimate objects as well, according to a 2002 study published in Health and Social Work. In a similar study (Lockwood, 1994) researchers state that people with this syndrome appear to experience an overwhelming sense of responsibility for preventing harm to animals, and they engage in unrealistic steps to fulfill this responsibility.
Focal Delusional Disorder Model
Focal delusional disorder involves a belief system which is out of touch with reality. It could be present in some animal hoarders when there are claims that the animals are well cared for in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary, and may accompany paranoia about officials who are actually trying to help both the hoarder and the animals.
Attachment Disorder Model
This model is sometimes used to explain why some animal hoarders prefer relationships with animals rather than other human beings. They see the animals as safer and less threatening than people. Some animal hoarders who grew up in chaotic households may have seen the animals in their lives as the only stable feature.
Household factors that may contribute to animal hoarding involve dependent family members, children and the elderly or infirm who are dependent on the animal hoarder and thus reluctant to report the problem or seek help.
Landlords who are aware of the growing animal population may evict the hoarder to protect their property but fail to notify local animal protection societies or local police. In this instance, the hoarder moves the menagerie to a new location and continues the hoarding. In some case landlords have impassively given up on their property and thus allowed the hoarding to continue unabated.
Community factors that contribute to animal hoarding range from the inaction of people in the community to the enacting of vague legislation. Friends, neighbors and relatives are often the first people to see the signs of animal hoarding before it becomes tragic, however they also may have little information about animal hoarding and thus not fully recognize what they are facing or know what to do about it. Service providers and tradesmen find themselves in the same position when they enter the house of an animal hoarder but fail to contact local animal protection societies or police when they see animals living in crammed quarters with feces encrusted floors and no visible signs of food or water. This is why increasing public awareness is so critical in addressing the problem of animal hoarding.
There is currently no specific legislation to deal with the issues of hoarding in Ireland. The DSPCA in its submission to government for the upcoming Animal Health & Welfare Act has requested provision for the investigation and assessments to deal with animal hoarding.
Communities contribute to animal hoarding when people want to get rid of their pets but feel guilty about taking them to a shelter where they may be euthanized. Instead, without much investigation, they drop their unwanted pets off with the neighborhood ‘cat lady’ who will refuse no animal in need. Many people will not take the time to find out if she can actually handle another animal and unknowingly contribute the problem.
In a recent release, Animal Hoarding: Structuring interdisciplinary responses to help people, animals and communities at risk, by a team from the Hoarding of Animals research Consortium (HARC), Gary Patronek, Lynn Loar, and Jane Nathanson, three types of animal hoarder are discussed. They include:
The Overwhelmed Caregiver
These hoarders initially provide adequate care for their animals which they have a strong attachment to; understand that a problem has gradually developed though they may minimize it; may be socially isolated; believe it is caused by some change in their circumstances; have fewer issues with authority figures and accepting intervention.
The Rescuer Hoarder
These hoarders develop a compulsion based on a strong need to rescue animals from possible death or euthanasia; actively acquired animals and believes they are the only ones who can adequately care for them, find it hard to refuse any new animals, may work within a network of animal welfare people; avoids authorities.
These hoarders acquire animals to serve their own needs and are indifferent to the harm caused to them; deny the problem and reject authority figures or outside help; believe they know best and have an extreme need to control; may come across as charming, articulate, manipulative and cunning; skilled at presenting excuses and explanations for their circumstances; self-concerned and expressing no remorse or guilt; acquires animals actively; plans to evade the law, will lie cheat and steal without remorse in order to achieve their goals.
Some hoarders will not fit neatly into one category or another but instead exhibit characteristics of several categories. Others may be incipient hoarders who exhibit some ability to care for their animals, are aware that a problem is developing but show deteriorating circumstances. While others still, the breeder-hoarder, will initial breed animals for sale become overwhelmed with the volume and care needed and may not fully recognize how the conditions have deteriorated and how it affects the animals.
Treatment and Prevention
Recidivism, the repetition of an offence, in animal hoarding is thought to be nearly 100% without intervention. Effective treatment of animal hoarding to change the behavior is one element needed to prevent recidivism. Unfortunately no diagnosis has yet been established in the diagnostic manual used by psychologists (DSM-IV-TR) and thus there is no established psychotherapeutic treatment. Even with the diagnostic void, some treatments have been used to address various disorders that have been found to co-exist with animal hoarding and thus it is recommended that psychological assessment and treatment be ordered in animal hoarding cases.
While research continues on diagnosis and treatment, it is increasingly important to ensure that other safeguards are in place. Prevention of animal hoarding through public education seems to be at the foundation as are laws which give humane officers the ability to intervene on behalf of the animals when appropriate.
Public awareness about animal hoarding and animal hoarding education can help authorities intervene before a case becomes extreme. In the book, Inside Animal hoarding: The story of Barbara Erickson and her 552 dogs, the reader can identify multiple times when intervention may have been possible if only those who were present at the time had understood what they were looking at and how they could have helped. Unfortunately, friends, neighbors and other members of the community did not have the appropriate information to assess the situation and act on their own instincts that something was awry. This book is a good resource for the general public as well as those in the animal welfare field to begin or expand their understandings of animal hoarding.
The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium is a good resource for in-depth learning about this phenomenon. Their information can be found on the Tufts University website. An in-depth resource for those who intervene in animal hoarding cases can be found at the HARC website and is called, Animal Hoarding: Structuring interdisciplinary responses to help people, animals and communities at risk.
The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium
The Humane Society of the United States
Idaho Humane Society
Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)
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