Tuesday, October 4, 2016

What is animal hoarding?

fish, aquarium
Any species of animal can become a victim of animal hoarding. BTW this fish wasn't - it was in an aquarium at Vancouver airport.
Animal hoarding is a form of animal cruelty that impacts the health and wellbeing of humans and animals. It is seen around the world, even while I was in Canada at the One Welfare conference news broke of a heartbreaking case involving a pet shop worker keeping reptiles and birds in unacceptable conditions in his home.

Dr Jyothi Robertson, from the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program and consultancy www.shelterstrategies.com discussed animal hoarding at the conference.

According to the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, hoarding involves
  • Keeping “more than the usual” number of animals
  • Failure to provide appropriate care for animals
  • Inability to recognise the effects of this failure
  • Persistence, despite this inability to care, in acquiring more animals.

Motivations of hoarders include a drive to prevent euthanasia, a belief that one has unique empathy or special abilities to communicate with animals, or “pathologic altruism”.

The literature often refers to three general types of animal hoarder – the exploiter, the rescuer, and the overwhelmed caregiver.

The overwhelmed caregiver
  • Has some awareness, more reality based
  • more passive acquisition – people may bring animals to THEM
  • problems may be triggered by change in circumstance à unable to care for animals when they could before
  • socially isolated but have few issues with authorities

The exploiter hoarder
  • Characterised by accumulation of animals, sociopathic characteristics, animal abuse (some forms of breeders eg warehousing animals for profit)
  • Lack of empathy for people and animals
  • may be superficially charismatic
  • indifferent to harm caused to animals by their practices
  • rejects outsider’s concerns
  • lacks guilt or remorse, manipulative and cunning
  • adopts role of expert with need to control others

The rescue hoarder – pathological altruist
  • often starts working in rescue organisations with others
  • then they become the only one that they believe can provide care for animals
  • initially they may adopt out animals but are very reluctant to adopt them out: rescue followed by adoption becomes rescue only care
  • actively acquire animals
  • may have extensive network of enablers or a group activity

A slide from Dr Robertson's presentation describing the development of pathological altruism.
According to Dr Robertson, pathological altruism is a complex syndrome believed to occur on a background of mental vulnerability, often someone who has had a rough childhood or suffered abuse. They struggle to form meaningful attachments with others, so human relationships don't meet their needs. Animals, on the other hand, provide unconditional love. This can be a source of self-esteem, but caregiving capacity is easily exceeded and the person is unable to meet the animal's needs. This can lead to dissociation, animal neglect and self neglect, and incredible suffering.

As a veterinarian I have unfortunately encountered people who seem to fit these profiles, and as an academic I've looked into animal hoarding in Australia and learned we really only encounter the tip of the iceberg. Working with people who hoard animals is challenging as there are two key issues: the health and wellbeing of the animals and the mental health of the individual. The latter, whilst not the area I am trained in, is  important because animal hoarders have a huge rate of recidivism. That is, even those people who are charged with cruelty offences will persist in acquiring additional animals. They may suffer trauma when animals are rehomed or in cruelty investigations seized. Their self esteem may rest entirely on their relationship with these animals.

But the people who have to attend their properties and work with them also suffer. Often hoarders live and keep animals in squalid, unhygienic, unsafe conditions. Indeed the problem may not be discovered until the Fire Department or utilities companies are called to deal with problems at the property.

The US Association of Shelter Veterinarians has produced Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters. These outline the bare minimum requirements for animals in shelters, from vaccinations to plumbing and ventilation of the building.

The Guidelines are based on the premise that the capacity for humane care has limits for every organisation, as it does in private homes, and that operating beyond an organisation’s capacity for care is unacceptable practice. Capacity is determined by the available resources, abilities and skills of persons running the shelter, and staffing.

There are different ways to look at capacity. For example, the US National Animal Care and Control Association stipulates that at least 15 minutes per day must be spent feeding and cleaning each animal. That does not include enrichment which would be additional, but one simple way to determine staff capacity is to multiply the number of animals by 15 minutes.

Ultimately animal hoarding is a form of cruelty. The numbers of animals involved are huge – often dozens, sometimes hundreds and occasionally a thousand or more animals (particularly in the case of reptiles which can be confined in very small spaces). It causes suffering which is widespread, over a long duration of time.

There is no quick easy fix.

Educating people about animal husbandry is one part of the solution. Dr Robertson talked about animal welfare organisations, rather than seizing animals from these properties (then creating the real logistic nightmare of what to do with these seized animals) of establishing guardianship and overseeing animals within the homes of hoarders.

In addition, these is a need to create alliances of first responders who might become involved in hoarding cases, including police, fire and ambulance staff, animal control and public health officers. One trend that is worrying is a number of veterinarians, nurses and animal carers - such as the man working in the pet store - have been charged with animal hoarding related offences. If you think about it, it makes sense: working with rescue animals is the perfect opportunity to acquire more. Which goes to show this is a pattern of behaviour we need to be aware of and look out for.


Joffe M, O’Shannessy D, Kemp T, Dhand N, Westman M & Fawcett A (2014) Characteristics of persons convicted for offences relating to animal hoarding in New South Wales (January 2005-December 2011). 92(10):369-375