Beware of ‘crazy cat ladies’
by Arnold Plotnick MS, DVM, ACVIM, ABVP
We jokingly call them “crazy cat ladies”, but it’s no laughing matter. Animal hoarding is a pathological behavior that causes terrible suffering.
Grosse Pointe, MI – A woman who exposed her two teenage children to the excrement from 42 cats, three dogs and six birds kept in her Grosse Pointe Farms home has been sentenced to two years of probation.
San Diego, CA -- Deputies arrested an Oak Park woman on suspicion of animal abuse Monday after finding dozens of dogs and cats inside portable pet carriers stacked atop each other in her heavily barricaded home.
Rapid City, S.D. - Some 100 cats were removed from a South Dakota home that was saturated with cat feces and urine. Phil Olson, executive director of the Humane Society of the Black Hills, said told the Rapid City Journal that the smell was "beyond anything" he had ever experienced.
Cortland, NY – A 54 year old woman was arraigned Wednesday on 49 counts of neglect of impounded animals, an unclassified misdemeanor, court officials said. On September 1, police and firefighters worked with the Cortland County SPCA to act on a search warrant and seize 275 ill and emaciated cats from the woman’s home.
As a feline veterinarian and writer, one way I stay current on feline-related topics is through an internet service that e-mails me relevant articles. Unfortunately, I receive articles like those posted above on a daily basis. The stories are horrifying. Descriptions of urine- and feces-soaked floors and beds, cats and dogs living among carcasses, and animals so malnourished that they need to be euthanized, are frighteningly common.
In the past, “animal collecting” was the term widely embraced by animal shelters for people with a penchant for accumulating animals. The word “collecting”, however, was thought to be too benign, considering the misery and suffering experienced by the animal victims of this behavior. In 1999, the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (HARC) – a group of mental health, social service, veterinary, and animal welfare experts – coined the term “animal hoarding”, as “hoarding” is the accepted psychological term to describe the pathological accumulation of inanimate objects.
According to the HARC, a hoarder is defined as someone who
• Accumulates large numbers of animals
• Fails to provide the minimum in terms of husbandry (nutrition, sanitation, shelter and veterinary care)
• Fails to act on or remedy the deteriorating conditions of the animals or the environment, even if the animals are starving, ill, or dying
• Fails to act on or remedy the negative effects that the hoarding is having on their own health and well-being, or that of other members of the household
“There is a great disconnect between what the hoarder thinks, and the reality of the situation”, says Dr. Anne Sinclair, veterinarian and owner of Cat Sense Feline Hospital and Boarding in Bel Air, Maryland. “They believe they’re providing good care, when in fact, the animals are usually starving, diseased, and dying.”
There are no strict numerical rules that define someone as a hoarder. It’s the possessive and accumulative nature of the person, and the violent opposition to letting even one animal go, that more aptly defines someone as a hoarder, rather than the number of animals accumulated, per se.
More common than you think
It is believed that at least 3000 cases of animal hoarding occur in the U.S. every year involving, at minimum, 250,000 animals. This is probably a low estimate, as the secretive nature of most animal hoarders results in many cases going undetected. Experts think the numbers are increasing. This may be in part because pets give unconditional love, something very appealing in a society in which more people are living alone and more families are being fractured.
Cats, and to a lesser extent dogs, are the most commonly hoarded species, however, there are reports of farm and wild animal hoarding, including horses, reptiles, rodents and birds.
Hoarding often goes undetected or is misinterpreted because some hoarders manage to operate under the guise of legitimate shelters, hospices, or rescue groups. In fact, the national push to control the animal population without resorting to euthanasia has allowed many hoarders to claim to be a “no-kill” shelter, with devastating results.
Veterinarians and those in related fields undoubtedly come across clients that could be considered to be hoarders at least once in their careers. “I was involved in caring for cats that were rescued from a hoarder on the Eastern Shore of Maryland about three years ago”, recalls Dr. Sinclair. “Over 300 cats were removed from one home. Thirty of them were dead or euthanized immediately. It was really awful. I hope to never see such horror again. And while the case was going forward, the hoarder was videotaped at a shelter in another state trying to get more cats.”
Gary Norsworthy, a board certified feline specialist, editor of the veterinary text “The Feline Patient”, and owner of Alamo Feline Health Center in San Antonio, Texas, has had a few run-ins with cat hoarders. His most dramatic encounter occurred a few years ago. “She did not fit the typical profile”, said Dr. Norsworthy, of this particular hoarder. “She was in her 30s, married, and enjoyed a middle class income level. At one point, she had more than 70 cats in a three bedroom house. Many of the cats were feral, and she often could not handle or even touch them.” The woman spent a great deal of her time rescuing cats. When she managed to bring some of these cats to his practice, it was obvious that these cats were lacking in basic nutritional and health care needs. Cats would often present to Dr. Norsworthy with advanced signs of illness, and he would be limited in his ability to help, due to the woman’s financial restrictions. Occasionally, the woman would find one of the feral cats dead in her home. Their feral nature prevented her from ever being touched or handled, and often they died without her even knowing they were sick. “Although her intention was to improve the lifestyle of the cats she rescued, the end result was putting them in a situation that resulted in poor nutrition, exposure to multiple infectious diseases, and very limited medical care”, notes Dr. Norsworthy.
Laura Speirs, a feline behaviorist in Portland Oregon, has had run-ins with hoarders as well. Two years ago, she met a woman at the shelter where she volunteered. The woman adopted three cats. Laura kept in touch with the woman so she could keep tabs on one of the cats, one she had fostered and who held a special place in her heart. “At first I didn’t know she was a hoarder”, says Laura. “She was a nurse and seemed like a reasonable person. I thought she was just in over her head and tried to help her”. One day, the woman finally let Laura into her house to visit the cat. “I was absolutely appalled by what I found. There were 13 large dogs in her kitchen, not housebroken, most in cages, along with 11 cats. The litter boxes were overflowing, empty cat food cans were strewn on the floor, the carpet was saturated with urine, and the air was so filled with ammonia that I could hardly breathe”, she says. As mentioned above, hoarders have a pathological attachment to their animals and are reluctant to let any of their animals go. Laura, was lucky, though. “With the help of another volunteer, I was able to get the cat I’d fostered away from her with the promise of getting her hyperthyroidism treated. She expected the cat to be returned to her after that”. Laura managed to prevent the cat from being returned to the woman. Eventually the woman was evicted from her house for non-payment of rent and damaging the house. The woman moved to another county. It’s a safe bet that this woman is continuing this behavior. The recidivism rate for hoarders, even after arrest and conviction, approaches 100%.
Types of hoarders
Experts have proposed, based on how hoarders relate to people and animals, that there are three general “types” of hoarders: the “overwhelmed caregiver”, the “rescuer” and the “exploiter”.
As the name suggests, the “overwhelmed caregiver” typically makes an attempt to provide proper care for the animals, but gradually becomes overwhelmed with the task. This usually occurs as a result of a change in the caregiver’s circumstances – the death of a spouse that helped care for the animals, the loss of a job and income, acquiring an illness or disability, etc. They often have a strong attachment to the animals as family pets, and usually understand that the animals might not be receiving the proper care. Most of the animals in their care were acquired passively. They are less resistant to animal welfare authorities and are more likely to cooperate with those who try to intervene and comply with recommendations. Several of the hoarders encountered by Dr. Norsworthy fell into this category. In two instances, these overwhelmed caregivers were able to reduce their cat population as a result in a favorable change in their personal circumstances. “One of these clients got married and started having children, which forced a decision that resulted in reducing the number of cats. Another got serious about a boyfriend who was not fond of the huge cat herd, and she reduced her population to please him.”
The “rescuer”, on the other hand, actively acquires their animals. They believe that it is their mission in life to save animals and that they are the only one that can provide adequate care. Initially, they rescue an animal and adopt it out to a good home, but this usually devolves into rescue-only, with minimal adoption. They find it hard to refuse any request to take in more animals. They often work with a network of other rescuers, avoiding animal welfare authorities and impeding access to their animals. They are strongly opposed to euthanasia and this opposition eventually blocks their empathy for suffering.
The “exploiter” is the most difficult hoarder to deal with. They tend to have serious personality disorders that border on sociopathic behavior. Manipulative and cunning, they believe that their knowledge is superior to all others’. They use their charm and charisma to present themselves as competent and credible experts to the public, the media, and animal welfare authorities. They acquire animals actively rather than passively, to serve their own needs. They lack guilt, remorse, social conscience, and empathy for animals or people, and are indifferent to the harm they might be causing. They show extreme denial regarding their hoarding situation and will lie, cheat or steal without remorse to achieve their own ends. They strongly reject any attempt by authorities to intervene and will manipulate the situation to evade the law and beat the system, for example, asking friends and other hoarders to look after their animals just long enough to evade authorities.
The psychology behind hoarding
Animal hoarding is a pathological human behavior. It involves a compulsive need to obtain and control animals, with a failure to recognize their suffering. What leads people to become hoarders has not been clearly determined, however, it is believed that an aberrant attachment to pets in childhood may be an important contributor to animal hoarding behavior in adulthood. When consistent human nurturance is missing from early childhood, for example, in children that have been victimized by abuse or neglect, or have been rejected by their parents, relationships with companion animals might serve as an effective substitute for relationships with people. Pets, which are nonjudgmental and always accepting, are often treated as objects of love and care, and as a means of escape from the damaging experiences the children in these dysfunctional families are undergoing. This response may develop into a generalized distrust of people, eventually degenerating into compulsive attachment and care-giving in adulthood, often manifesting as animal hoarding.
Although there are many reports of men, married couples, and entire families being hoarders, the image of the “crazy cat lady” has some truth to it. The majority of animal hoarders are older, socio-economically disadvantaged women who live alone. Not all hoarders are socio-economically disadvantaged, however. Hoarders cross all demographic boundaries, and include those with white-collar jobs, health care professionals, nurses, and even veterinarians.
Denial seems to be a large part of the psychological makeup of hoarders. They claim they love their animals and would never harm them, yet deny the deficiencies in the living conditions or care, often going as far as to refuse to admit an animal has died. In fact, sick or dead animals are discovered in 80% of cases of hoarding. By storing corpses, whether in freezers, attics, or wherever, rather than having them properly disposed of, hoarders avoid responsibility, effectively ignoring the death of their animals.
Animal abuse linked to human abuse
Animals are often not the only victims of animal hoarders. Hoarding can be a sentinel for serious neglect of people, especially those who might depend on the hoarder for care, such as children, the elderly, and people with disabilities. In many cases of animal hoarding, human victims were discovered only as a result of an investigation of animal neglect. For example, in one case in which more than 30 cats, dogs, rats and snakes were found living in a home covered in animal and human waste, the only clean place for the teenage son to sleep was in the bathtub.
How you can help
Animal hoarders may appear to have good intentions, but the harm they do to animals is immeasurable. An individual animal in a hoarding situation may appear to be in reasonable health and coping well, however, one must take into context the environment and duration of the neglect. When multiple animals are kept together in filthy and crowded conditions, their suffering is magnified due to such factors as stress by aggression from other animals, possibly having to fight for food or to protect a litter, having to cope with being in proximity to predator species, and the exposure to contagious diseases.
As animal lovers and compassionate human beings, we are ethically bound to report cases of animal hoarding. Every community has agencies working on behalf of animals, and it can be difficult to determine exactly who to call to report alleged hoarding situations. Initially, one should contact a local animal welfare agency, preferably one that has the legal power to investigate animal cruelty complaints and enforce anti-cruelty laws. These include private humane societies such as the local SPCA, municipal animal control agencies, national animal protection groups, animal wardens, animal rights groups, or animal rescue groups. These animal welfare groups provide expertise that is usually unavailable from other responders. If the agency you call has appropriate jurisdiction, they will intervene, based on the authority granted to them via the animal cruelty laws in their state.
As in any criminal case, the success at obtaining a conviction depends very much on how closely the rules of criminal procedure have been followed. Evidence must be properly gathered, search warrants must be properly executed, and witnesses must be reliable. Hearsay evidence, poor quality photos and/or videos, and outdated evidence make for a poor case. Entering a private home or apartment to obtain evidence, even if the person entering is the landlord or owner, is an act that requires a search or inspection warrant, and may result in the evidence being inadmissible in court if entry to the home was obtained without the consent of the resident. It is important to work with local law enforcement officers for guidance when pursuing a complaint of hoarding.
If a community’s animal welfare agencies do not have the proper jurisdiction for handling hoarding situations, other law enforcement organizations should be contracted. These include local police, sate police, sheriffs, district attorneys, or local prosecutors.
The Health Department may be helpful in addressing animal hoarding cases. Because their primary concern has to do with disease surveillance and matters affecting human health, the physicians and nurses who staff at the Health Department understand how poor sanitation can create dangerous health conditions. Many homes and apartments in which hoarding takes place are unfit for human habitation for safety or sanitary reasons, and the Health Department may prohibit occupancy, which may help curtail the hoarding situation. In addition, the Health Department may connect hoarders with appropriate treatment providers within a community in cases where a hoarder might be sick from illnesses acquired from the animals they’ve been hoarding, or from failure to manage their own serious medical conditions. The Department of Social Services often works closely with animal welfare agencies because many animal hoarding cases affect dependent adults and/or minors as well as animals.
Because most of the suffering in animal hoarding cases arise from neglect and not deliberate intent to harm, prosecuting cases of animal hoarding can be difficult and frustrating. Some animal cruelty laws only focus on deliberate abuse with intent to harm, and charging hoarders with animal cruelty may be counterproductive in those jurisdictions. The recent changes in many state animal cruelty laws in which the penalties have been substantially increased have come about to address cases of deliberate abuse and torture. Ironically, because most animal hoarding cases are not a result of deliberate intent to harm, an unintended consequence of the effort to make deliberate acts of animal cruelty a felony offense has been to sideline cases in which neglect is the primary offence, as in most animal hoarding cases, since neglect is seen as more benign compared to deliberate acts of cruelty. Adding to this frustration is the fact that cases involving large numbers of animals are often prosecuted as a single case of animal cruelty, either for purposes of expediency, or because judges discourage multiple counts for the same case. This results in the court hearing a case involving one charge of neglect, despite the fact that tens or even hundreds of animals may have been involved. The penalty for a single count of animal cruelty or neglect rarely matches the severity of the crime.
Despite the seemingly uphill battle in terms of prosecuting hoarders, the criminal justice approach remains the best method of addressing animal hoarding. Over the years, legislators, courts, police and prosecutors have come to take animal crimes seriously, and for some hoarders, such as the “exploiter” hoarder, aggressive prosecution is the only effective approach.
Treating the hoarder
Currently, there is no consensus regarding the psychological treatment for animal hoarders. Experience suggests that a variety of other mental disorders are often present in cases of hoarding of inanimate objects, such as obsessive compulsive disorder, schizoaffective disorder/schizophrenia, attention deficit disorder, generalized social phobia, and others. Exactly what role these conditions contribute to animal hoarding cases remains to be determined. Identification of these co-morbidities (other diagnosable psychiatric illnesses) may be very important, as they are often amenable to treatment, and resolution of these other disorders may help hoarders overcome their illness. Imposing fines, forcing the forfeiture of the hoarded animals, imposing prohibitions on future animal ownership, and even incarceration does not resolve the problem. The relationship of the hoarder with the hoarded animals must be professionally explored by trained mental health professionals. This approach, in combination with conscientious long term monitoring and follow-up, offers the best chance of reducing the recidivism rate, which currently approaches 100%.