IN OUR PROFESSION, we regularly discuss the veterinarian's role in recognizing and reporting suspicions of deliberate animal abuse.1-3 It is a positive step for the profession, for animals, and for society that veterinary medicine has embraced responsibility for preventing cruelty to animals. But we also need to attend to a more subtle and less well understood form of severe cruelty: the chronic, large-scale neglect that occurs with animal hoarding.
Animal hoarding is a pathological human behavior that involves a compulsive need to obtain and control animals, coupled with a failure to recognize their suffering. And like other forms of animal cruelty, hoarding can sometimes be a sentinel for serious neglect of people, particularly dependent children, the elderly, or people living with disabilities (see boxed text "Links with human neglect"). Thus, from both an animal welfare and a public health perspective, animal hoarding merits our attention.
Links with human neglect
The accumulation and neglect of large numbers of animals by caregivers or owners was first described by Dooley Worth and Alan M. Beck in 1981. Their report detailed 31 cases of multiple-animal ownership in New York City.4 Subsequently, reports from animal welfare agencies have documented that hoarding cases are not uncommon and occur nationwide. The animal victims are often subjected to severe lack of sanitation, disease, crowding, confinement, and starvation, and they often die—all of which go unrecognized by the hoarder. Frequently, the shared human and animal living spaces are so filthy and full of trash they are deemed uninhabitable.
The term animal hoarding was coined in 1999 by the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (HARC)—a group of mental health, social service, veterinary, and animal welfare experts—because the then widely used term for this problem embraced by animal shelters—animal collecting—was more consistent with a benign hobby than with the reality experienced by the animal victims of this behavior.5 In contrast, hoarding, an accepted term applied in the medical literature to the pathological accumulation of inanimate objects, is frequently suggestive of squalor, impaired functioning, and a wide spectrum of psychological comorbidities (see boxed text "The psychology of animal hoarding").6,7
Several surveys suggest that at least 3,000 cases of animal hoarding occur annually in the United States, involving at least a quarter-million animals.5,8 Many other cases likely remain undetected because of the secretive nature of animal hoarders. The average number of animals involved per case has a skewed distribution. A median of 39 and 47 animals has been reported in two case series,5,8 but some cases involve hundreds of animals.
The psychology of animal hoarding
Every veterinarian is likely to encounter hoarding in practice. However, clues to its presence can be subtle and easily misinterpreted because, unlike with deliberate abuse, overt intent to harm is absent, and some hoarders may masquerade under the guise of legitimate shelters, sanctuaries, hospices, or rescue groups. A further complication is that the public persona of an animal hoarder may be sympathetic and persuasive.
Features of animal hoarders
Common features of hoarders include poor insight, lack of resistance to the compulsion to hoard, and poor treatment motivation.7 HARC has defined an animal hoarder as someone who5
- Accumulates a large number of animals
- Fails to provide even minimal standards of husbandry and veterinary care
- Fails to act on the deteriorating conditions of the animals or environment, even if the animals are starving, diseased, or dying
- Fails to act on the negative impact of the hoarding on his or her own health and well-being and that of other household members.