Studies Suggest Both Biology and Mental Health Figure in Hoarding

You want a fifth or 10th cat, so does that make you an animal hoarder? Actually, hoarding is not related to the absolute number of animals, despite the common perception, says Randall Lockwood, Ph.D., the ASPCA’s senior vice president of forensic sciences and anti-cruelty projects. Someone with 50 animals may provide perfectly adequate daily care and veterinary care. Theirs is not an animal cruelty case.

Hoarding cases emerge in the news because of neglect and animal cruelty. Recent studies on animal hoarding in other countries indicate that it’s found in many cultures, suggesting a potentially strong biological component and at least partly a mental health issue. “Hoarding does seem to run in families,” Dr. Lockwood says.

The current thinking is that hoarding is a complex issue, perhaps related to obsessive-compulsive disorder, though hoarders don’t have impulses to, say, touch a doorknob eight times and they’re not willing to change. Animal hoarders see themselves as rescuers, Dr. Lockwood says. “However, they will be in complete denial of their inability to provide minimal care for these animals, and meanwhile it is clear that the animals are suffering.”

Animal hoarders also seem to process some perceptual information differently from the general public. They don’t see that their animals are in poor condition or even dead, “even though these are people who are otherwise functioning at a high level,” Dr. Lockwood says. Doctors, lawyers, teachers and people of all types have been found to be animal hoarders.

However, living with hoarder can be “worse than death” for the animals, says Holly Putnam, DVM, program clinician in Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell. “Animals have been known to starve to death, feeding on each others’ carcasses, living on waste. And then you have to wonder, too, about their social interactions. Dogs can be aggressive and pick on the poor timid ones.”

Each year brings an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 new cases of animal hoarding, Dr. Lockwood says. The agency monitors about 100 cases at any given time. The latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders added a classification of hoarding disorder, although it provides no special recognition of animal hoarding, Dr. Lockwood says. The manual estimates that 2 to 5 percent of the general population has hoarding disorders.