Have you ever seen a news story about hundreds of animals rescued from a single person? Frequently, these horrifying stories come with graphic details of pets that starved to death or attacked each other because of overcrowding and lack of food or care. People who collect animals beyond their ability to care adequately for them are called “hoarders,” and they suffer from a poorly understood and complex mental health disorder known as animal hoarding. Up to 250,000 animals are victims of hoarding each year.
What Defines an Animal Hoarder?
The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium defines a hoarder as someone who:
- Accumulates a large number of animals
- Fails to provide minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, and veterinary care
- Fails to act on the deterioration (including starvation, disease, and even death) of the animals or their environment (severely crowded and unsanitary conditions)
- Fails to act on or realize the negative impact of the collection on their own health and well-being.
Hoarders often say they care about their pets and may be deeply troubled if or when the neglected pets are seized by authorities, but hoarding isn’t about a desire to care for animals. It’s about satisfying an internal need to collect more and more animals despite lacking adequate time, money, knowledge and space to care for them. Hoarders are suffering from mental illness and need treatment. Without it, nearly 100% of hoarders will begin collecting animals again, even if all pets are removed from the home.
What to Do if You Know a Hoarder
If you suspect someone you know or know of is an animal hoarder, you need first to determine whether or not it is appropriate to involve Animal Control and/or the Police Department. If the hoarder is someone to whom you are close, you may wish to make an effort to help them remedy the situation and seek help, with reporting the situation to the relevant authorities as an option of last resort. However, if it’s a stranger or casual acquaintance, or if you know that trying to help the hoarder will only end up overextending your own resources and energy, it may be best simply to call Animal Control and report the situation.
If you do report the hoarder, take care to record everything you’ve observed, with dates and times, and provide as many details as possible. This will help obtain a warrant for the seizure of the pets suffering in the hoarder’s home.
If you wish to attempt to help the hoarder and their pets yourself before involving Animal Control or the Police, try the following approach:
- Approach the hoarder with warmth, caring, and respect. Express a desire to see and talk to them more often, and make sure to respond positively to any effort on their part to contact you or communicate with you.
- Express your concern for the physical health of the hoarder and their pets. Avoid giving a judgment or opinion on the condition of their home or pets, or making statements about the hoarder’s mental health. Just express that you care for the person and their pets, and as a friend, you want to assist them.
- Offer to help with small tasks first, such as moving pet food from a storage situation prone to rodent infestation to rodent-proof bins.
- If the hoarder accepts your help with a few small favors, try approaching him or her about the possibility that there may be some solvable problems regarding the pets, which the two of you could work on together. Try to mutually agree upon one problem at a time— for example, say, “I see there are twelve rats in this small cage. Do you think that’s too many?” If they agree, offer to help reduce the number of rats in the cage by finding homes for some of them.
- If the hoarder takes even a small step to improve conditions for their pets, give strong positive reinforcement. Say things like, “I know you’ve been working hard to make sure all the pets get fed every day, and it’s really paying off! The animals look really happy!”
- Be prepared to involve the appropriate authorities if, after some time, it becomes apparent that this hoarder will not ever relinquish animals or cease acquiring new animals until they have a reasonable number of pets.