The blinds are drawn. The resident is secretive. Strange odors and noises drift from the property. Animals arrive, but never leave.
When neighbors or family become concerned and ask officials to investigate, a shocking scene may unfold: dozens of animals, living and dead, captive among filth and neglect, deprived of minimal food or sanitation.
Is this a case of criminal activity? Of mental illness? What can be done to help?
What is animal hoarding?
“Animal hoarding can be identified when a person is housing more animals than they can adequately and appropriately care for,” says Anne B. Pagano, executive director of the Hoarding Disorder Resource and Training Group, Inc. “It is a complex issue that often encompasses mental health, animal welfare, and public safety concerns.”
Also known as “Noah’s Syndrome,” animal hoarding is defined by an inability to provide even minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, shelter, and veterinary care. Left to fend for themselves, hoarded animals may breed together, suffer starvation, fall ill, or die.
From a clinical perspective, animal hoarding is considered a compulsive spectrum disorder and a type of hoarding, as detailed in the DSM-5.
Who discovers the problem?
Animal hoarding cases are difficult from the beginning,” says Emily Lewis of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, “because they happen behind closed doors. It can take a while before people realize that there’s a problem occurring. It can take a while for an enforcement agency to uncover what’s going on, because the person tends to be really private or embarrassed, so they’re not going to be forthright. They might not even have a true understanding of what is going on.”
Specialists learn to notice signs of animal hoarding. With an excess of cats, for example, blinds or curtains on the windows may be shredded. A build-up of waste or destruction may be visible along the edges of a windowsill or the bottom of a door. “If they have an aluminum type door, urine causes that to rust at the bottom,” Lewis says. “In the yard, there may be an accumulation of animal carriers, boxes, tarps, and varying items that have built up over time. These are all indicators that can tell an investigator that something might be missed.”
How are animal hoarding victims rescued?
Animal Cruelty Investigations: A Collaborative Approach from Victim to Verdictpublished in February 2022, explains that correcting an animal hoarding situation is slow and complex, requiring the participation of multiple agencies, from public safety and animal control officers to mental health and veterinary specialists.
Documenting and clearing the site requires personal protective gear, because the concentration of animal waste and carcasses can carry diseases and emit noxious odors. Physical structures at the location may be unstable and dangerous from neglect, while surviving animals may be frightened, in pain, and potentially difficult to handle.
Since the animals themselves become legal evidence, they require a chain of custody to get transferred to medical care and rehoused for safety. Rescue efforts can also get delayed due to space shortages and financial limitations at nearby animal shelters.
Who is likely to hoard animals?
People who engage in animal hoarding often have backgrounds of trauma or attachment disorder.
Most individuals who hoard animals are women over 50 years of age. The gender predisposition may be linked to the oxytocin, cortisol, and related neurochemical pathways of social affiliation.
Recent research suggests that social affiliation and “tending and befriending” behaviors (such as caring for animals) reduce stress-induced cortisol levels for women. Interestingly, this neurochemical mechanism does not seem to reduce stress for men, who coincidentally display less animal hoarding.
At what point does pet ownership become dysfunctional?
Typically, one of three pathways leads to animal hoarding behavior.
1. Overwhelmed caregiver. Here, five owners start out with good intentions, but circumstances get the better of them. After falling on hard times, whether physically, financially, or emotionally, they become unable to keep up and the situation spirals out of control. Through the overwhelmed caregiver’s passivity and neglect, their animals may reproduce and exacerbate the situation.
Lewis has seen animal hoarding cases in which overwhelmed caregivers felt as attached to the animals as if they were their family members. In turn, their self-esteem hinged on the animals.
“In these cases, because the person can be embarrassed, if their plumbing breaks down or if one of their utilities goes out, they’re not going to call a repair person,” says Lewis. “Conditions can become deplorable pretty quickly after that.”
2. Mission to rescue. Some individuals feel an overwhelming mission to “rescue” unclaimed pets and animals, similar to an addiction. Their urge is so fierce that the person aggressively searches out and accumulates animals beyond any realistic capacity to care for them.
People who follow this pattern, Pagano says, feel passionate about their mission and believe only they can provide proper care. They find it difficult to refuse requests to take on more animals, so the numbers can skyrocket.
What makes these cases challenging is that these individuals can publicly present themselves as operating a legitimate rescue. They actively work to evade authorities, sometimes with help from a network of enablers. Privately these individuals disconnect from reality, acquiring more and more animals while escaping into denial and hiding how the animals in their possession are suffering.
3. Exploitation. Individuals with antisocial traits actively accumulate animals for their own personal benefit and lack any true concern about the animals’ well-being. Pagano consulted on one such situation.
“The hoarding individual was a prominent dog breeder known for showing his pedigree dogs in contests,” said Pagano. “However, once the dogs ‘aged out’ or developed conditions that made them no longer ‘show-worthy,’ the dogs would not be retired to be adopted or maintained as pets.” Instead, they were “neglected and left to suffer and die on the property, while the owner/breeder moved on with his newer and showable dogs.”
This, she explains, was a clear-cut case of exploitative animal hoarding. “As this was a rural area, there was no hoarding task force, so I reported it directly to the local police precinct and conferred with both the police and local ASPCA to support an immediate intervention.” Ultimately, scores of dogs were found on the property. Twenty were in excellent health, groomed, and well-nourished, while 14 others were in varying states of disease, starvation, and neglect. A full 25 were deceased, left to decay where they had passed away.
Ultimately, “the person was arrested and jailed for three months for animal cruelty,” says Pagano. “He was banned from owning or having any direct involvement with animals, and after notification by local law enforcement, he lost his certification as a registered breeder.”
Can animal hoarding behavior be stopped?
Individuals who slip into animal hoarding behavior often fail or refuse to grasp the severity of the situation. Many cling to the belief that they are helping the animals and deny the harm they’ve caused.
Even after authorities remove animals through enforcement efforts, the animal hoarding behavior will usually resume if given the opportunity. Constant oversight is essential, with clearly set expectations and monitoring of compliance.
One preliminary study, conducted in the United Kingdom with individuals who hoarded horses, suggests that motivational interviewing (MI) can help reduce animal hoarding behavior. MI avoids direct confrontation but instead employs patience and active listening skills while demonstrating empathy for how difficult and emotionally charged behavioral change can be.
Examples of positive outcomes reported with MI included an elderly owner who, made comfortable by an animal welfare officer’s nonconfrontational approach, invited him on-premises to see a stallion who had not been out of the stable for three years. Another hoarding individual voluntarily chose to relinquish the majority of his horses and actually closed his equine rescue operation.
If family members get involved early on to support the individual, believes Lewis, they may be able to support mental health, spay and neuter, and other interventions that “help bridge the gap between the person who’s suffering from this behavior and enforcement and animal control entities.” Ideally, intervention occurs before the scene becomes a crime for the individual and a tragedy for the animals.