Animal hoarders: beyond the cat lady cliché

How—and why—people go from owning one or two pets, to 200
Kathy Milani/ The HSUS/ Getty Images

Last month, in a suburb of Stockholm, a woman was found living with 191 sickly cats in a home that smelled so strongly of urine, the eyes burned on entry and breathing was difficult. Closer to home, more than 40 dogs were seized recently from an excrement-filled house north of Winnipeg; in East Vancouver, 23 cats were rescued from an animal hoarder; and the Montreal Gazette reported last month on a Laval breeder who lived on a bus with 27 chow chows. “I’m not mentally ill,” he said. “I just live with a pack of dogs.”

But while hoarding tales have abounded lately—there’s even a new Animal Planet series, Confessions: Animal Hoarding—this compulsive behaviour has been around for nearly as long as the printed word (the earliest reference can be found in Dante Aligheri’s epic poem the Divine Comedy). It just wasn’t until recently that academic study began to shed light on hoarding, and why some people collect live cats and dogs like shoes or postcards.

Randy Frost, author of the new book Stuff: Compulsive hoarding and the meaning of things, has been a leader in the study of animal hoarding. He says the afflicted are on a mission to save the pets they “rescue”—even though their pets are usually discovered in ghastly, cramped conditions, and sometimes have to be put-down.

“We usually find that the condition of the home deteriorates,” he says, “so the human being is living like the animal.” But hoarders do not lack empathy for their pets. Rather, he says, “They develop some kind of delusion. They believe they have an ability to communicate with animals that no one else has and that regardless of the condition of the animals, [the animals] are better off with them than they would be with anyone else.”

Frost gained much of his knowledge on this subject as a researcher with the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (or HARC) out of Tufts University, which wrapped-up a decade long research project in 2006. The only group of its kind, HARC found that animal hoarding exists across socioeconomic classes, and that it’s often synonymous with poor sight, emotional instability, impulsivity, anxiety, and chaotic internal and external lives. Animal hoarding may also be a form of attachment disorder: people fail to develop human attachments during childhood and then overcompensate with animals.

But what does a typical animal hoarder look like? While there have been hoarders of both sexes, the cat lady cliché prevails. Hoarders are usually isolated, single women. Cats are the most common object of the hoard, followed by dogs, farm animals, and birds. (There was an interesting case in Sweden that involved a woman who was found living with 11 swans in a one-room apartment.) Hoarders usually live in cities, and in the U.S., the median number of animals per case is 39.

While research on this topic in Canada has been thin, Michael 0’Sullivan, chairman and CEO of the Humane Society of Canada, can attest to the prevalence of hoarding in this country and around the world. “It’s a global phenomenon,” he says. “I have been working with animals for the past 40 years and I’ve seen cases of hoarding in over 100 countries around the world.”

O’Sullivan estimates that there are roughly 300 and 500 hoarding cases in Canada per year, and that they often cost tens of thousands of dollars to remedy. The laws around the number and type of pets one can keep differ on a municipal basis. In Toronto, for example, exotic pets are prohibited, and people can have as many as six animals, only three of which can be dogs. On the federal level, the criminal code says animal owners must provide their pets with suitable and adequate food, water, shelter, and care.

But despite the laws, some people continue to hoard as many animals as they can, and this tendency—especially among females—may actually be a reflection of the evolutionary care mechanism. Stephanie Preston, an assistant professor at University of Michigan who studies hoarding from an evolutionary perspective, says, “People have an innate care giving response that causes them to retrieve distressed offspring, in order to ensure offspring survival. So if you have this innate disposition to feel sorry for, rescue, and sympathize with, what you see as distressed or vulnerable others can be extended to animals.”

There is no standardized treatment for animal hoarders yet, and attempts at intervention are usually unsuccessful. As Preston says, “Often times, if you remove the target of the hoard it can cause the hoarder to be highly depressed.” But if animal hoarding—which is currently under consideration for inclusion in the next Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—is finally recognized as an official disorder, perhaps a treatment will be discovered and there will be a reduction in the number of cat ladies roaming the planet.