When most people hear about animal hoarding, they recall shocking news stories about the “crazy cat lady.” They immediately side with the animals, rarely considering the life of what led to this behavior.

The term "animal hoarding" refers to the compulsive need to collect and own animals for the sake of caring for them that results in accidental or unintentional neglect or abuse. Most animal hoarders fall victim to their good intentions and end up emotionally overwhelmed, socially isolated, and alienated from family and friends. The problem causes immense suffering for both animals and people. It also creates great expense for local animal shelters and may require regional and national efforts to find homes for large numbers of animals.

Specific Problem Areas

Animal hoarders have problems with acquiring animals and handling, managing, and getting rid of them. They have every intention of caring for the animals, but their difficulties with organization, attention, and focus contribute to their living spaces becoming very messy with animal waste and clutter. Hoarders have a hard time letting go of their objects or animals because they have a terrible time making even simple decisions; for example, “Is this dog my favorite or should I adopt him out?” They also may have subtle memory problems and feel that they cannot trust their recall, so they keep things to preserve memories.

Strong Emotional Attachments

Hoarders also have an intense emotional attachment to their animals. They avoid the pain of letting go of things that seem very special, even when clutter prevents comfortable living. Like object hoarders, animal hoarders believe that things should be saved for some special event, even if the event never happens. They imagine the wonderful way in which they will heal love, and nurture their pets, while overlooking the terrible effects of having too many of them.

Many hoarders confuse their good intentions with the real acts of organizing or discarding things. They churn through their piles of junk, feeling as if they have accomplished something significant, even without any discernible improvement. Animal hoarders clear a small area of their home of animal waste, or find a special container for pet food, but they fail to address that their home, furniture, and lives are destroyed by having too many animals.

Triggering an Abundance of Love

Studies of animal hoarders show that their behavior often begins after an illness, disability or death of a significant other, or other difficult life event. They view their animals as a major source of love, and they emphasize how much they give and receive from them. For many, keeping their animals appears to guarantee a conflict-free relationship. They often refer to their animals as their babies, and they confuse their loving the animals with the reality of their inability to provide a safe, clean, and healthy home for them.

Many see themselves as a rescue service for animals that others reject, giving them a role as a person who saves unwanted animals, which helps them feel special, loved, and important. So they feel unable to give up their animals for adoption because they believe no one else will provide their intense love for them.

Unhappy Consequences

The result of animal neglect is especially sad. Everyone suffers with animal hoarding — the animals, the hoarder, and those who love the hoarder. Hoarders frequently neglect their own health, nutrition, and social life because they spend all their time, money, and energy caring for their animals. They are emotionally overwhelmed and trapped by their indecision and sense of responsibility and are often sleep-deprived. Their homes are overcome by animal waste, and they can suffer health problems created by inhalation of ammonia, fleas and tics, and animal-borne illnesses.

And the animals suffer the same fate: poor health, malnutrition, disease, and even death. They are stressed by frequent fights over food; territory, or mating in crowded conditions and usually are not spayed or neutered. Hoarded animals can’t retreat when they feel stressed or threatened, which is natural behavior for pets living in healthy homes or in the wild. All hoarding leads to a sad outcome, but the saddest of all is the animals who die in an environment of neglect, filth, and stressful overcrowding as innocent prisoners of well-intentioned but misguided love. These animals are innocent victims, enduring tragic lives with people who are equally trapped.

Treatment Options

Like object hoarders, animal hoarders rarely seek treatment unless those who love them motivate them. Their inability to make decisions, stop acquiring animals, and trust others with their animals keeps them stuck. Many have few alternative activities to help them feel productive because they are consumed with vain attempts at animal care. Simply removing the animals from a hoarder’s home doesn’t teach them to manage their lives and prevent additional hoarding, but it does provide more open space to refill with clutter. Animal control officials report that without treatment, those who have their animals removed are at risk for becoming repeat animal hoarders.

Unless a hoarder engages in cognitive-behavioral treatment (CBT) designed to address whatever leads to and maintains hoarding, they are likely to repeat their mistakes. Research shows that object hoarders can improve with the proper CBT, and there’s every reason to believe that this is true for animal hoarders, too.

Help From Family and Friends

Treatment for animal hoarders will usually involve coordinating intervention with local or regional animal shelters and animal control officers to make it harder for the hoarder to rescue or adopt more animals. It also helps to have the family and friends become involved in treatment so that the hoarder can quickly develop or maintain satisfying relationships that provide opportunities to give and receive the love that their animals offered. Confronting hoarders with their mistakes and the terrible state of their animals and home will make them feel defensive and allow them to rehearse their reasons for being a hoarder. Often furious and horrified by the hoarder’s behavior, family and friends usually need the help of a therapist to learn to how to be helpful, rather than bludgeon the hoarder with their confrontations.

The Numbers Speak

  • Every year 3,500 animal hoarders come to the attention of authorities.
  • At least 250,000 animals are affected each year.
  • Eighty percent of animal hoarders have diseased, dying, or dead animals on the premises.
  • Seventy percent of animal hoarders who come to the attention of authorities are females who are single, widowed, or divorced (although community-sampling studies find an equal ratio of males to females).
  • Up to 40 percent of object hoarders also hoard animals.
  • One hundred percent of hoarders relapse without treatment.

Karen L. Cassiday, PhD, is Clinical Director and Owner, The Anxiety Treatment Center, Deerfield & Chicago, Illinois; Clinical Assistant Professor, Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Sciences; and Clinical Director for Rogers Behavioral Health Chicago. @DrKarenCassiday

Updated September 2016