Can you identify animal hoarders?


Cleveland — The last legislative session in California passed a law binding veterinarians to report suspicion that a client is an animal hoarder, yet DVMs have no particular training to detect a problem.

CLEVELAND — The last legislative session in California passed a law binding veterinarians to report suspicion that a client is an animal hoarder, yet DVMs have no particular training to detect a problem.

Tips for detecting animal hoarders include:

"In many cases hoarders do take their animal to veterinarians," says Dr. Duane Flemming, past president of American Veterinary Medical Law Association. "The clue is that the same person takes many animals to the same veterinarian. A lady shows up with eight different cats in two months."

Veterinarians take extensive notes to present in court in the states where animal hoarding is mandated. In states where veterinarians are not protected, they expose themselves to civil liability, which discourages the real crime from being addressed.

Veterinary position

"If veterinarians find themselves in a position of reporting and being the primary snitch, there's a possibility that once known, the veterinary care of the animals will be compromised," Flemming says.

Educating veterinarians about details of detecting animal hoarders might not be clear-cut. There is not a cookie-cutter image to place a label on, says Gary Patronek, VMD, PhD, president of The Hoarding Animals Research Consortium (HARC), which is part of the Tufts Center for Animals and Public Policy.

"There have been a few cases of veterinarians who have been discovered to be hoarding animals. They discuss proper healthcare to clients all day, and no one would expect them to be hoarders," Patronek says. "You cannot rely on the person or animal's appearance to identify them as a hoarder."

HARC's goal is to increase awareness of the different appearances animal hoarders can take to increase awareness of the problem. More research my reveal better ways to resolve the problem.

Mind-set of hoarders

Hoarders tend to use explanations that reflect a positive self-image such as saying they were good samaritans because they took the animals off the street and provided them with shelter, according to collaborative research published by Maria Vaca-Guzman, Center for Animals and Public Policy at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, and Arnold Arluke, PhD, professor of Sociology at Northeastern University.

"It is a mistake when individuals say the hoarder had good intentions because that gives the hoarder a sympathetic label," Patronek says. "They are actually fulfilling their need to acquire, like any other addict."

HARC has conducted research on animal hoarding behavior, and publishes information to educate the public on the ideology of people with animal-hoarding tendencies.

"Hoarding is a dark side to the human-animal bond that is vastly undiscovered," Patronek says. "While most people may find hoarders' living conditions unbearable, the hoarders themselves see no problem, seeing their home as a safe-haven for the animals."

"Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is more commonly being attached as a description of animal hoarders," Patronek continues. "The level of severity varies with each case, but the rate of repeat offenses after a penalty has been enforced is almost 100 percent."

The term hoarding replaced an earlier label of collecting, in order to more accurately describe the person's actions, Patronek says.

Approaching the problem

While an unknown number of people are animal hoarders, the problem is being discussed in the media more frequently, Patronek adds.

It's important for veterinarians to recognize the signs of hoarding because offenders typically see no problems with overcrowding, cleanliness or quality of care, says Jane Nathanson, social work and rehabilitation consultant, Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

"An animal hoarder could be standing in feces and carcasses to the knees and not see a problem."

Cost of the problem

Aside from the health effects suffered by the animals and those living in the home, the financial cost to the community is high.

Police, animal control, health departments, zoning officers, state veterinarians, humane agencies and sheriffs, family and friends of the hoarders are all involved. It takes time and money for workers to clear the home of the animals, sanitize the environment and investigate. Housing the confiscated animals and giving them proper medical care adds to the burden.

"From a legal standpoint, there are lots of specific evidentiary requirements before you can establish and discuss the idea there are characteristics of hoarders that can be recognized by veterinarians in their general practices," Flemming says.

States making a difference

Illinois Gov. George Ryan signed the Companion Animal Hoarder bill into law in 2001, making it the first state to mandate psychological counseling for companion animal hoarders. The bill also includes more severe penalties for neglect and cruelty treatment. Aggravated cruelty becomes a Class A misdemeanor and aggravated cruelty, all of which becomes a Class 4 felony. Animal torture becomes a Class 3 felony, bringing three to five years of jail time.

The law also mandates psychological counseling for juveniles convicted of animal cruelty.

While most states do not have clear-cut laws against animal hoarding, the issue is becoming more widely discussed and addressed.

"HARC plans to publish an intervention manual this year, with excerpts taken from experts attending a workshop hosted by Angell Memorial Animal Hospital," Patronek says. "When the problem is more widely understood, states will make changes. For now, we are taking baby steps."

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