Too many pets, too little care: A look at animal hoarding

June 4, 2019
Sarah Mouton Dowdy
Sarah Mouton Dowdy

Sarah Mouton Dowdy, a former associate content specialist for dvm360.com, is a freelance writer and editor in Kansas City, Missouri.

dvm360, dvm360 July 2019, Volume 50, Issue 6

Once thought to be the eccentric hobby of the crazy cat lady, animal hoarding is beginning to get the attention it deserves. Shelter medicine instructor and veterinarian Dr. Kirk Miller provides an overview of its effects on pets, people and shelters and explains why prosecution and prevention are so problematic.

The definition of animal hoarding may surprise you. That's because the crux of what classifies a person as a hoarder isn't a particular number of animals-it's whether or not those animals are provided with sufficient care, says Fetch dvm360 conference educator Kirk Miller, DVM.

This means that someone with 20 cats who's able to meet all of their needs wouldn't classify as a hoarder. But a person with only seven cats who's overwhelmed by the situation and unable to provide a minimum level of care would.

A Q&A with Dr. Miller

What should you do if you suspect a client is hoarding animals? Read Dr. Miller's response here.

As a clinical instructor of small animal primary care and shelter medicine at Oregon State University College of Veterinary Medicine and a practicing veterinarian with the Oregon Humane Society in Portland, Dr. Miller is no stranger to the world of animal hoarding-a world that includes an estimated 250,000 animals per year in the United States.

With so many affected animals, there's unfortunately a good chance that if you haven't witnessed animal hoarding yet, you will in the future.

“According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the Pet Abuse Database, the animal hoarding trend seems to be going upward, especially in the past 10 years,” says Dr. Miller. “But it's hard to say if that's because there's more hoarding going on or if awareness is simply growing. Thanks to television shows on the topic, the problem is more top of mind.”

Animal hoarder typology

Building on the definition above, Dr. Miller says animal hoarders are often characterized by obsessive attempts to accumulate or maintain a collection of animals in the face of progressively deteriorating conditions.

“Even though things are bad or going downhill, they're still trying to get more animals or keep the ones they've got,” he explains.

Animal hoarders fail to provide their pets with minimal standards of sanitation, space, nutrition and veterinary care, and they are unable to recognize the effects of this failure on the welfare of the animals, themselves and other people who live in the household, says Dr. Miller.

Though he stresses that there can be a lot of overlap and gray area, Dr. Miller explains that it can be helpful to know the three types of hoarders, as the typology can be used to guide authorities on the most appropriate intervention approach.

The overwhelmed caregiver. According to Dr. Miller, this is a person with good intentions who's trying to take care of their animals but eventually becomes overwhelmed. Pets in this situation are often passively acquired, he explains-consider the “neighborhood cat lady” who keeps getting cats brought to her to the point that the situation spins out of control.

“Overwhelmed caregivers are more likely to understand there's a problem and thus typically have fewer issues with authority and accepting intervention,” Dr. Miller says.

The rescue hoarder. Rescue hoarders, on the other hand, have a compulsive need to rescue animals from euthanasia and tend to see humane organizations as the enemy-in their eyes, they're the only ones who can help these animals, explains Dr. Miller. Unlike overwhelmed caregivers, they actively acquire pets and will avoid authority.

“They're not amenable to help because they believe they're the only ones who can help,” he says.

The exploiter hoarder. The exploiter hoarder, explains Dr. Miller, is indifferent to the animals they acquire.

“Accumulating animals satisfies some need they have,” he says. “Sometimes it's just to have a bunch of animals.”

This category can include those who run puppy mills and who illegally sell animals into research. Exploiter hoarders have an extreme need for control and will lie, cheat and steal to achieve their ends.

A detriment to pets and people

Malnutrition, neglect, stress and infectious diseases are common with these animals. Dr. Miller says hoarded pets are sometimes too far gone-medically, behaviorally or both-to be adopted out after being rescued.

The people involved in these situations don't go unscathed either, as risk of zoonotic disease is high and sanitation concerns and self-neglect are common. To illustrate his point, Dr. Miller describes a case in which a woman lived in a one-bedroom apartment with 48 cats. When her toilet stopped working, she was unable to ask for help from her landlord (due to violating the conditions of her lease by housing so many cats) and started using her bathtub as a toilet.

“Sometimes, the hoarder's home is so bad that it has to be destroyed,” he says.

From an eccentricity to a disorder

While the effects are obvious, the causes of animal hoarding are less clear. When animal hoarding was first reported in the early 1980s, it was referred to as “animal collecting.” Such a term made it sound more like an eccentric hobby, says Dr. Miller.

Hoarding disorder is now a separate listing in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and theories regarding the cause abound. Some speculate that it's linked to a traumatic event or an attachment disorder developed in childhood (i.e. a person who wasn't cared for properly as a child may turn to animals and develop unhealthy dependencies). Others have pointed to addiction models, delusional disorder, borderline personality disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and insistent caregiving-none of which adequately describes every hoarder, says Dr. Miller. Dementia has also been documented in many hoarders, but not all of them.

Problematic prosecution

Prosecuting animal hoarders and getting them the long-term monitoring and therapy they need is difficult, explains Dr. Miller. Animal hoarding is typically prosecuted under state animal cruelty laws as a crime of omission or neglect, though some states have developed hoarding-specific legislation.

The Akitas case

Dr. Miller says the Oregon Humane Society (OHS) recently had a case where a woman had 140 Akitas and Akita mixes that were almost feral. She wanted to fight the charges, so the Oregon Humane Society shelter in Portland was required to hold each and every one of these giant, aggressive dogs. Because the dogs were considered evidence, Dr. Miller and his team were unable to foster them out or have them adopted until the case went through the court system, which took over a year.

“Our shelter normally houses about 130 dogs,” he explains. “It would've shut down adoptions of dogs for over a year from our shelter.”

Luckily, an anonymous person donated the use of a warehouse space, so OHS was able to set up an emergency auxiliary shelter to house all of the dogs. With a lot of medical care and behavioral modification, most of the dogs were able to be adopted.

Forfeiture laws are often used but can have a dramatic effect on the shelters that must house the seized animals while the case moves through the legal system. (See “The Akitas case” at right.) Bond laws, which require the animals' owner to post a security or bond to pay for the care of the seized animals, can also be used. According to Dr. Miller, this approach can either help defray the costs associated with caring for these animals or can be used as a negotiating tool for getting hoarders to sign over their animals so they can be fostered and adopted out.

The penalties for animal hoarding are often inconsistent and ineffective at deterring the crime. For one, district attorneys may try to lump everything into one charge to avoid clogging the court system, says Dr. Miller.

“These are individual animals and should be treated as individual cases,” he continues. “Having all of those separate charges really helps during the penalty phase.”

Moreover, because the causes of animal hoarding are not well understood, and because hoarders are usually in denial that they have a problem, therapy is rarely mandated or followed through on, Dr. Miller explains. Monitored probation is also uncommon. (See “The Vikki Kittles case,” below right.)

The Vikki Kittles case

When Vikki Kittles arrived in Oregon in the mid-1990s, the old school bus she was driving housed over 100 dogs, several cats and a chicken in addition to herself.

“There were feces and straw material as high as the seats of the bus,” says Dr. Miller. “Animals were standing on top of this mess and looking out the window.”

Kittles wouldn't permit any of her animals to receive medical treatment-a refusal that was legal at the time. As a result, three of her dogs died of heartworm disease.

Kittles' trial lasted several weeks and cost more than $150,000. It was also exhausting. She berated the judge and fired all of her attorneys. She was found guilty of animal cruelty and was sentenced to several weeks in jail, as well as mandatory mental fitness evaluations and therapy. She refused to comply, and unfortunately, without monitored probation, she left Oregon and is now hoarding again in Wyoming.

On a positive note, the Kittles case taught Dr. Miller and others a lot about animal hoarding and helped pass several laws that have had a positive impact toward prosecuting hoarders and protecting their animal victims.

In cases that do go to trial, Dr. Miller highlights the importance of having veterinarians serve as expert witnesses.

“Someone with a white coat who can tell it like it is carries a lot of weight,” he says. “The defense is going to have their own medical expert witnesses, so it's really important that the prosecution has expert witnesses as well.”

Hope for hoarding?

According to Dr. Miller, the recidivism rate for animal hoarding is estimated to be 100 percent.

“The old adage that an animal hoarder is going to leave the courthouse and pick up another animal on the way home likely has a lot of truth to it,” he says.

But that doesn't mean Dr. Miller doesn't think things can improve.

“Overall, the legal system needs to treat the problem more seriously,” he explains. “The biggest thing we can do is to mandate therapy for these people so we can start collecting data to learn what's behind animal hoarding. And we need to institute monitored probation to make sure offenders don't leave the area and keep doing what they're doing elsewhere.”

Sarah Mouton Dowdy, a former associate content specialist for dvm360.com, is a freelance writer and editor in Kansas City, Missouri.

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