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Animal Hoarders: The Illness and the Crime

Animal hoarders – once described as “collectors” whose good intentions had gone awry – are now recognized as individuals whose mental illness or compulsion can cause criminal behavior with horrific consequences for animals, the hoarders’ families, and their communities.

The Animal Hoarder: A Profile

According to Dr. Gary J. Patronek, V.M.D., Ph.D., “[H]oarders are by definition oblivious to the extreme suffering, obvious to the casual observer, of their animals.”(1)

There are three characteristics indicative of hoarding behavior:

  • Hoarders amass a large number of animals.
  • Hoarders fail to provide for animals’ most basic physical and social needs, including food, water, shelter, veterinary care, and sanitary living conditions.
  • Hoarders offer excuses for, or deny, the abysmal living conditions of their animals and, in some cases, their children.(2)

According to the Vermont Animal Cruelty Task Force, hoarders also “find the thought of death so abhorrent that they deem an inhumane life far preferable to a humane death.”(3) This aspect of hoarding behavior is common among so-called “no-kill” shelters, where animals are often warehoused for years in deplorable conditions rather than provided with a peaceful and painless death by qualified technicians.

It is especially in these settings, as Dr. Ronald Ulfohn, D.V.M., states, where the purported “savior … becomes the oppressor.”(4) For example, Gloria Sutter pleaded guilty to eight counts of cruelty to animals after investigators reportedly found 198 ill cats and dogs at her Vanovia Animal Sanctuary in 2004.(5) Sutter had a history of amassing large numbers of animals: In 1984, more than 500 animals were found in poor health at the filthy facility, and in 1986, nearly 800 animals were discovered in similar conditions.(6)

The companion animal overpopulation crisis enables hoarders to operate everywhere. One 1999 study found that just over half of the hoarders operated in urban areas, with the remainder divided rather evenly between rural and suburban settings.(7)

While animals kept as companions – such as cats and dogs – are involved in as many as 65 percent of hoarding cases, farmed animals – including horses, goats, and pigs – are accumulated by more than 10 percent of hoarders.(8) The remains of nearly 100 cows, horses, goats, and pigs were reportedly found on the California ranch of Paul Keller in 2004.(9) Exotic animals and wildlife are also regularly rescued from hoarders. For example, authorities reportedly found 32 exotic animals of 11 species crammed into Angela Ancampora’s West Virginia mobile home.(10)

A Fate Worse than Death

Every hoarder’s behavior translates into severe, even fatal, neglect for animals in their custody. Overcrowded and filthy conditions make for easy transmission of worms, fleas, mange, ear mites, upper respiratory infections, parvo, distemper, and other diseases and can lead to feces-matted coats and urine burns. Hoarded animals are commonly deprived of basic veterinary care, including spaying and neutering, which causes the numbers of animals to increase, and/or results in the separation of animals by sex and their confinement to small cages or bathrooms. Injuries – including broken limbs and wounds suffered in fights with other animals – go untreated and lead to infections. According to news sources, most of the 61 cats found in a Michigan woman’s truck were suffering from everything from skin parasites to respiratory problems, and the majority of them had to be euthanized.(11) A 1999 study conducted by Dr. Patronek found that animals were reportedly found dead or suffering from “obvious disease or injury” in 80 percent of hoarding cases reviewed.(12)

Animals’ social needs are equally ignored by hoarders. Dogs, who are pack animals and crave companionship, are often kept chained or in pens for years, and they often develop anti-social behaviors and become highly fearful or aggressive. Cats deprived of human contact become skittish and – if allowed to reproduce – produce feral offspring.

The behavioral problems caused by physical and psychological neglect virtually eliminate animals’ chances of being rehabilitated and adopted. For many, euthanasia is the most humane option.

The Threat to Human Lives

Though the jeopardy that hoarders place animals in is clear, The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium states, “Animal hoarding has serious consequences for the physical and mental health of hoarders and their families,” as well as their neighbors.(13)

As mental-health experts have learned more about hoarding, they have proposed at least three behavioral models to explain the phenomenon:

  • Hoarders as “animal addicts: Houston veterinarian Dr. Karen Kemper believes that hoarders are “like alcoholics” and points to 10 behavioral traits that animal hoarders share with substance abusers, including recidivism, “denial that the addiction exists,” and “neglect of personal, physical, and environmental conditions.”(14,15) 
  • Hoarders as suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD): The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) characterizes the hoarding of inanimate objects as a symptom of both OCD and OCPD.(16) One study found that  more than 77 percent of hoarders’ premises were described as “heavily cluttered” and that an “extensive accumulation” of non-animal-related objects – such as newspapers – was present in nearly 75 percent of the cases.(17) 
  • Hoarders as suffering from dementia: The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium believes that dementia is among “the spectrum of psychological disorders” that hoarders may suffer from.(18)

The close quarters common in hoarding situations may facilitate the transmission of diseases from animals to humans, such as toxoplasmosis, psittacosis, and salmonellosis. These diseases also threaten a hoarder’s human dependents, especially children and the elderly, who were present in more than half of hoarding cases surveyed in one recent study.(19) For example, six children reportedly were removed from a filthy Virginia home that they were sharing with their parents and at least 16 cats and dogs in 2004.(20) High levels of ammonia may also be present in hoarder’s homes resulting from accumulated animal urine.

Because of these potential health hazards, some cities – including New York City and Seattle – have created interagency task forces that allow for adult and child protective services, animal control authorities, and health departments to work cooperatively on solutions in hoarding cases.(21)

Repeat Offenders

According to Dr. Gail Steketee, a professor at Boston University’s School of Social Work, the relapse rate for animal hoarders is near 100 percent.(22) An inadequate sentence for convicted animal hoarders – or one that is not enforced via regular official visits to ensure compliance – virtually guarantees a hoarder’s return to his or her ways, along with the disastrous consequences for humans and animals alike. “The old adage,” says Dr. Patronek, is that hoarders “have another cat by the time they’re home from the courthouse.”(23) Patronek found that nearly 60 percent of animal hoarding cases that he reviewed involved recidivism.(24)

What You Can Do

Contact humane officials and the police if you suspect animals are being neglected or abused by their caretakers – even those who appear well intentioned. Neighbors’ complaints often cite the unsanitary conditions, odors, noise (e.g., barking), and rodent and insect “infestations” commonly associated with animal hoarding situations. At least 57 percent of animal-hoarding cases are brought to authorities’ attention by a hoarder’s neighbors.(25)

Investigate before you turn an animal over to any shelter, humane group, or “rescuer.” Tour the facility yourself and accept no excuses for not being allowed to view the animals’ living quarters. Ask questions about animal care and adoption rates and policies.

Write to officials and the media when hoarding cases are publicized and urge that hoarders be barred from all contact with animals and ordered to undergo psychiatric evaluations and appropriate counseling or treatment. In 2001, Illinois became the first state to define and address animal hoarding in its anti-cruelty statute.(26) The law requires convicted animal hoarders to undergo a mental evaluation and appropriate treatment.(27)

Preventing hoarding and all other forms of cruelty to companion animals begins with fighting the overpopulation crisis. Ensure that your animals – and those of family, friends, and neighbors – are spayed or neutered.

1) Gary J. Patronek, V.M.D., Ph.D., “The Problem of Animal Hoarding,” Municipal Lawyer, May/Jun. 2001.
2) The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, 2004.
3) Vermont Animal Cruelty Task Force.
4) Ronald Ulfohn, D.V.M., “Animal Hoarders,” Paw Prints, Feb. 2000.
5) Todd C. Frankel, “Woman Pleads Guilty to Animal-Neglect Charges,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 21 Oct. 2004.
6) Todd C. Frankel, “Raid Nets 54 Animals at Union Apartment,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 10 Aug. 2004.
7) Gary J. Patronek, V.M.D., Ph.D., “Hoarding of Animals: An Under-Recognized Public Health Problem in a Difficult-to-Study Population,” Public Health Reports 114 (1999): 81-86.
8) Patronek, Public Health Reports.
9) Jim Schultz, “3 Charged in Animal Deaths. Tehama DA Says 100 Livestock Are Found on Property,” Record Searchlight, 10 Jul. 2004.
10) “Woman Accused of Neglecting Dozens of Animals Turns Herself in,” The Herald-Mail, 21 Sep., 2004.
11) “Majority of Cats Found in Back of Truck Destroyed,” Associated Press, 26 Jan. 2005.
12) Patronek, Public Health Reports.
13) The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, 2004.
14) Evan Moore, “Addicted to Animals/Self-Deception, Denial and Alibis for Their Behavior Suggest Some People Are Driven to Collect Too Many Animals,” Houston Chronicle, 21 Jul. 1991.
15) Evan Moore, “Ten Behavioral Traits of Animal Addicts,” Houston Chronicle, 21 Jul. 1991.
16) The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, 2004.
17) Patronek, Public Health Reports.
18) Bonnie L. Cook, “Helping ‘Animal Hoarders’ and Their Pets Is No Simple Task,” Knight Ridder Newspapers, 23 Sep. 2004.
19) Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, “Health Implications of Animal Hoarding,” Health & Social Work, 27 (2002): 125-136.
20) Matthew Roy, “Burglary Report Leads to Child Neglect Charges,” The Virginian-Pilot, 19 Nov. 2004.
21) Nina Bernstein, “So Much Clutter, So Little Room: Examining the Roots of Hoarding,” The New York Times, 4 Jan. 2004.
22) Cook.
23) Jamie Malernee, “Woman May Be Animal Hoarder,” St. Petersburg Times, 2 Jul 2001.
24) Patronek, Public Health Reports.
25) Patronek, Public Health Reports.
26) American Veterinary Medical Association, “Lawmakers Tackle Animal Hoarding. States Look to New Laws to Address Animal Hoarders,” JAVMA News, 1 May 2003.
27) Public Act 92-0454, State of Illinois, 92nd General Assembly, 21 Aug. 2001.