Pet Hoarding: What is It and What Causes It?

If you’ve ever watched an episode of A&E’s “Hoarders” you already know that this self-destructive type of behavior is typically triggered by a past traumatic experience with the individual feeling the accumulation of possessions can fill a void. It doesn’t, but it does lead to their financial, mental and physical health being left in tatters.


Add animals into this equation, and you have an entirely new level of tragedy that’s not going unnoticed in North America. In fact, this unique manifestation of compulsive animal hoarding (also known as Noah Syndrome) is being studied on various levels including sociological, psychological and veterinary.


So, what exactly is animal hoarding? According to the Cumming’s School of Veterinary Medicine’s “Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium” (HARC), this type of behavior is identified as the accumulation of animals beyond an individual’s ability to provide minimal standards of care (this last part is important and you’ll read why later). Further, the individual fails to recognize or act on the poor condition of the animals (including disease, starvation and even death) or the resultant health concerns to themselves and other members of the household.


Now, when we say this type of hoarding is still being studied it’s because research groups have not been able to assign it to any one psychiatric disorder. Some feel it can be better understood if looked at from an addictions-based model because of the denial, justification and sense of persecution. Other researchers consider it to be an inability to establish human relationships and the need for the unconditional love that only animals can bring. And still, others suggest it’s down to an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) where the individual feels compelled to collect and “protect” animals.


At the end of the day, this type of hoarding can be one or any combination of these conditions with the challenge being that in order to stop the behavior, it needs to be diagnosed and treated. Simply removing the animals doesn’t solve the problem because according to Dr. Elizabeth Berliner, Director of Shelter Medicine at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, the relapse rate for animal hoarders is almost 100 percent.


So, what’s the difference between a hoarder and a Good Samaritan who simply takes in stray animals? It’s actually down to care versus numbers. Back in 2003, a Nova Scotian woman passed away, leaving 100 cats that she had accumulated over the years. Her veterinarian confirmed all were spayed, neutered, vaccinated, well-fed and flea-free. Even the local animal shelter described them as beautiful, friendly animals which resulted in a national campaign to find homes for these much-loved pets. The word “hoarding” was never used to describe the situation but was instead replaced with “Good Samaritan” given the excellent condition of the animals. In this instance, having the psychological capacity to recognize and respond to the animals’ physical needs won out.


With between 3,000 and 5,000 new cases of animal hoarding happening each year in North America (affecting up to 250,000 animals), the best thing you can do for pets in distress is to recognize and report the signs – whether it’s a friend, family member or neighbor. As shared by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), they include watching for:


  1. An inability or reluctance to identify the number of animals in their care.
  2. A home that shows deterioration including dirty or broken windows and extreme clutter.
  3. A strong smell of ammonia coming from the home.
  4. Visible animals that are emaciated, lethargic, and not well socialized.
  5. An individual who is isolated from the community and neglects their personal hygiene/care.
  6. An individual who insists their pets are happy and healthy despite obvious signs of distress and illness.


It may be a difficult call to make, but it can be the difference between an animal existing in sub-standard conditions and finding a loving home that can meet its health and emotional needs.

Mary Simpson
Mary Simpson

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