Animal Hoarding Disorder
Animal Hoarding Disorder is estimated to have a 2-4% prevalence rate. If you’ve spent enough time watching Animal Planet you’ve likely witnessed the SPCA team roll in wearing gas masks, wrangling 30+ cats, who all use the living room as a litter box.
Oh, you haven’t seen that? If not, the video below will give you the scene.
What Causes Animal Hoarding Disorder?
Now that you’ve seen the magnitude of this, let’s talk about why someone would find themselves in this situation. It’s not uncommon for someone who hoards animals to have experienced some sort of traumatic event, or huge loss.
While there isn’t a black and white answer to what causes animal hoarding disorder, there do seem to be some common themes, such as
- Unresolved trauma
- Childhood abuse
- Childhood neglect
- Unresolved grief
- Lack of meaningful relationships
- Compulsion to acquire animals
- Personality disorders
- Delusional disorders
- Mood disorders
I spent my childhood.. and adulthood watching these shows and a common theme I noticed was that they all seemed depressed, and many of them had some really bad things that had happened, but they haven’t dealt with it properly. Now, as a mental health professional, I’d call that unprocessed trauma.
There are some theories that animal hoarding disorder is a form of obsessive compulsive disorder, others relate it more to addiction, and I’ve even heard it be described as a delusional disorder.
Delusional disorder seemed like a stretch to me but the rationale is that many animal hoarders don’t seem to grasp that their animals are not being taken care of. Since it’s usually blatantly obvious that the animals are ill, that implies they’re not in touch with reality.
People with animal hoarding disorder sometimes think they have a special ability or connection with the animals which again, seems a little out of touch. The thing about delusions, is that they’re typically unshakeable. You cannot convince someone that their delusion is such; their delusion is their reality.
However, someone could argue that their unawareness of the health of the animals is a form of denial, making it more relatable to addiction.
But some people with animal hoarding disorder do seem to have an understanding of the reality but still can’t resist the compulsion, which seems more like OCD.
The reality is, not all animal hoarding disorders are cut from the same cloth. Some cases have more delusional components, while others are trying to fill a bottomless empty feeling that unresolved trauma creates. Some are deeply depressed because of a huge loss that has left them with unresolved grief.
Many people with animal hoarding disorder that experienced trauma or grief seem to lack the ability to process it & even their best methods of coping are dysfunctional.
In these cases, it’s not too late to process trauma or grief. It also is possible to learn coping skills as an adult. A lot people came from households that avoided emotions or dealt with them inappropriately which leave us lost, even as adults, when emotions inevitably flood us.
But regardless of the cause of animal hoarding disorder, none of them seem to be able to resist the compulsion to collect unhealthy amounts of animals.
How Many Animals is Considered Hoarding?
Psychiatrically, there is not a set number of animals that makes someone an animal hoarder.
Animal Hoarding Disorder DSM-5:
“Animal hoarding is defined in the DSM-5 as the accumulation of a large number of animals and a failure to provide minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation and veterinary care and to act on the deteriorating condition of the animals (including disease, starvation or death) and the environment (e.g., severe overcrowding, extremely unsanitary conditions).”
In order for someone to receive an official diagnosis it would be up to (in most cases) a licensed counselor or psychiatrist to evaluate the person & decide they meet criteria for the diagnosis.
Some things they’re going to try to decipher include whether or not their accumulation of animals
- Impacts their level of functioning
- Impairs their relationships
- Deteriorates their environment
- Deteriorates the health of the animals
- Deteriorates the health of the hoarder
Aside from the diagnosis of animal hoarding disorder, there are states and cities that have specific laws or ordinances for animal hoarding. Some laws are more subjective like the DSM-5, but some actually give a number of animals you can legally own and beyond that, regardless of how well they’re cared for, is considered animal hoarding.
There is a pretty good reason for making laws around animal hoarding. Having a large number of animals doesn’t just put the pets at risk, but the people around them too.
Health Risks of Animal Hoarding Disorder
There are quite a few health risks of animal hoarding disorder.
Respiratory issues from
- High ammonia levels
- Mold from excess moisture
- Fungus from droppings or other debris
Increased risk of infection from
- Animals transporting bacteria
- Animal bites
- Animal scratches
Increased risk of falls
- Numerous animals in environment
- Excess clutter from debris, food bowls, cages
Risk of diseases include
- E. coli
- Bartonella (cat scratch disease)
Increased risk of parasites
These are just a few of the health issues that come with animal hoarding disorder. Animal hoarding disorder usually means the house has feces and fleas. Fleas and animal feces can and do carry parasites and diseases.
If you or someone you know is starting to acquire too many animals, it’s worth addressing the concern. Animals can quickly become unmanageable. Even having a normal amount of animals is expensive, so imagine having 15 dogs or 30 cats, or both!
Dogs and especially cats will breed and people with animal hoarding disorder will compulsively take in strays or pick up strays. Aside from the cost of caring for the animals, the fines and penalties of animal hoarding can be financially devastating. Furniture, homes and even health can be completely ruined from animal hoarding disorder.
Acquiring more animals deteriorates the environment; risking the health of animals and humans.
Each new animal carries a risk of all of the illnesses mentioned above and more.
Early Signs of Animal Hoarding Disorder
You may notice some early signs of animal hoarding disorder such as isolation and preoccupation with animals but the issues that come along with animal hoarding disorder generally get out of hand fast or are hidden until the issues are severe.
Signs and Symptoms of Animal Hoarding Disorder
Excessive number of animals which are not properly cared for
- Dogs & cats are most common
- Misses social events
- Only able to see them if you visit them
- Strained relationships
- Pre-occupied with animals
Odors in the home or on the individual that smell of
- Wet dog
Increasingly dirty environment
- Damaged floor from animal activity
- Damaged furniture
- Accumulation of animal hair
- Visible feces and urine
- Rooms that are inaccessible
- Clutter/debris in inappropriate areas
- Sleep or eating area
- Limited space
- Facilities out of order
- No running water
- Utilities shut off
- Lack of heating/cooling
- Sewer issues
- Non functional sink, toilet, or bathtub
- Flea infestation
Lack of self care
- Ignores their own needs
- Poor diet
- Poor hygiene
- Unmanaged chronic health issues
- Financial disorganization
- Inability to afford minimal pet care
- Unpaid fines
These are some things you might notice about someone with animal hoarding disorder. The most common animal that is hoarded are cats.
How to Help a Cat Hoarder
Encourage mental health treatments
- Encourage routines
- Improve sleep environment
- Group therapy
A non profit organization that offers TONS of free support. They have individualized therapy and support groups for eating disorders, abuse, PTSD, dissociation, sexual trauma, grief and loss, self esteem, self care, men’s support groups, and substance abuse. They definitely have groups that talk about how to to deal with immature parents.
They have one on one services and group/workshops. I have joined many of their PTSD groups. I always felt safe & definitely felt connected with someone who’s understands.
Another amazing place to connect. ACOA changed my life. I know that many others feel the same admiration for this program. There are thousands of groups and they all have their own flavor. If you don’t like one, try another. They have guidelines to ensure that you feel safe. Plus, it’s all free.
You never have to turn on a camera or mic, or speak at all. I sometimes just join to listen to others. Don’t be turned off if you’re not from an alcoholic family; alcohol aside; there are tons of people that are just as welcome as anyone else. There are typically a good mix of newcomers and seasoned members.
Dysfunction and abuse comes in a lot of forms and so many people come together and accept each other, as they are, in ACOA. I like the humor within the groups too. Listening to the stories and hearing what others have learned is pretty insightful.
I prefer the in-person groups personally, but there are TONS of virtual groups too. The availability of in person groups seems to vary. I have to drive about 40 minutes to get to the closest in person meeting for ACOA.
- Individualized therapy
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy [CBT] Model
This type of therapy will working on adjusting the distorted thoughts.
Changing our thoughts often changes our emotions and behaviors.
Help coordinate with resources
- Animal control
- Departments of health and human services
- Local SPCAs
- Commission on aging
Support the health of the animal hoarder
- Ensure they have a health provider
- Ensure diseases are managed
- Encourage medication adherence
- Assess for sufficient food/water
- Be an emotional support
- Improve air quality
- Proper ventilation
- Air purifiers
- Replace air filters
- Sufficient and managed areas for animal waste
Support the health of the animals
- Minimize fleas to minimize parasitism
- Treat for worms
- Ensure sufficient food/water
- Spade/neuter animals to reduce reproduction
- Ensure appropriate shelter for animals
- Assess and treat respiratory infections (especially in cats)
- Assess and manage grooming
- Matting of fur (especially in dogs)
- Overgrown nails
- Assess and treat ear mites
If you think you or someone you know has animal hoarding disorder you can take the quiz below to see the likelihood.
Animal hoarding disorder involves long term treatment that usually involves multiple different agencies/resources. Just like in other compulsive disorders, relapse is a possibility.
Medications and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy are usually the most important pieces of treatment for animal hoarding disorder.
This quiz is not intended to be a diagnostic tool