7 Tell-Tale Signs of an Animal Hoarder

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

why do people hoard animals

Story at-a-glance -

  • Animal hoarding isn’t as much about the number of animals a person has as it is about the inadequate care of those animals
  • Hoarders are relatively easy to identify because their pets will typically be living in cramped, unsanitary conditions, without adequate nourishment or veterinary care, and the hoarder will deny there’s a problem
  • Animal hoarding is now considered a psychiatric disorder, and there are multiple theories as to why it occurs
  • In animal hoarding situations, there are often inadequate resources available to prevent a recurrence or provide necessary medical care and behavior modification to animal victims
  • If you’re concerned someone you know is an animal hoarder, you can make your own risk assessment using a tool called the HOMES Scale, and then take appropriate action if necessary

Interestingly, the definition of an animal hoarder doesn't involve a specific number of animals, but rather the lack of sufficient care of those animals. As veterinary publication dvm360 explains, someone with 20 cats who's able to meet all their needs is not considered a hoarder, but a person with 7 cats who can't provide a minimum level of care, is.1

An estimated 250,000 animals are hoarded in the U.S. each year, and the problem is trending upward according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the Pet Abuse Database.2

However, as Dr. Kirk Miller, a practicing veterinarian with the Oregon Humane Society and a clinical instructor of small animal primary care and shelter medicine at Oregon State University College of Veterinary Medicine told dvm360, it's hard to know if there's actually more hoarding going on, or if awareness is simply growing.

How to Spot an Animal Hoarder

Per Miller, animal hoarders exhibit an obsessive need to accumulate or maintain a collection of animals even 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.

Hoarders don't provide their pets with even minimal standards of sanitation, space, nutrition or veterinary care, and they don't recognize or acknowledge the effect their lack of care has on their animals, themselves, other people who live in the household, and in some cases, their neighbors as well. Signs of an animal hoarding situation as described by the ASPCA include:3

An abundance of animals, to the extent that the owner may lose track of how many there are

Animals are in poor health, emaciated, lethargic and not well-socialized

A dirty environment, including dried feces, urine, vomit and a smell of ammonia

The owner believes all the animals are happy and healthy

Fleas and vermin may be present

The owner is often socially isolated and often neglects self-care

A home in deteriorated condition, including broken furniture, holes in walls or flooring, extreme clutter and more

Types of Animal Hoarders

According to Miller, there are three general types of hoarders:

The overwhelmed caregiver — This is a person who starts out with good intentions but ultimately becomes overwhelmed. Often, the animals in these hoarding situations are passively acquired, meaning the caregiver develops a reputation as a local "drop off location" for unwanted or stray animals.

Overwhelmed caregivers are more likely than other types of hoarders to acknowledge there's a problem, cooperate with authorities, and accept help.

The rescue hoarderThis is a person with a compulsive need to rescue animals from euthanasia who tends to view humane organizations as the enemy. Rescue hoarders believe they're the only ones who can help these pets, says Miller. They actively acquire animals, avoid the authorities, and aren't open to outside "interference."

"They're not amenable to help because they believe they're the only ones who can help," says Miller.

The exploiter hoarder — These hoarders are "indifferent" to the animals they acquire, according to Miller. Collecting pets is about satisfying their own needs (e.g., puppy mill operators and breeders who illegally sell animals to research labs). Per Miller, these hoarders have an extreme need for control and will lie, cheat and steal to achieve their ends.

Animal Hoarding Is a Psychiatric Disorder

When the propensity to hoard animals was first observed back in the early 1980s, it was known as "animal collecting," says Miller, making it seem like a quirky hobby rather than a mental imbalance with serious repercussions. Hoarding has since been included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which means that all forms of the condition, including animal hoarding, are officially considered a psychiatric disorder.4

There are several theories floating around about what causes hoarding. These include a traumatic childhood event or attachment disorder, addiction, or one or more personality disorders — none of which describes every hoarder. Dementia has also been reported in many, but not all hoarders, according to Miller.

Aftermath of Animal Hoarding Situations

When animals are removed from hoarding situations, it can be very difficult to hold the hoarders accountable, get them the help they need for their disorder, and provide the care the animals require to prepare them for adoption.

Miller tells of a recent Oregon Humane Society (OHS) case in which 140 "almost feral" Akita and Akita mixes were removed from a woman's home. The hoarder chose to fight the charges, so the OHS — which normally houses a total of about 130 dogs — was required to hold all 140 big, aggressive Akitas as "evidence." They couldn't be adopted or even fostered until the case was adjudicated, which took over a year.

Thankfully, an anonymous donor offered the use of warehouse space that OHS was able to outfit as an emergency auxiliary shelter for the Akitas. After a great deal of medical care and behavioral modification, most of them found new homes once the court case concluded.

In another hoarding case dating back to the mid-1990s, a woman arrived in Oregon driving an old school bus that was home to over 100 dogs, several cats and a chicken, along with the woman. The bus was filled with straw material and feces, and the animals stood atop the mess looking out the windows.

Upon her arrival in Oregon, the woman refused veterinary care for her animals, which was legal at the time, and three of her dogs subsequently died of heartworm disease. Her trial lasted several weeks and was costly for the state and exhausting for all involved. She fired all her attorneys, berated the judge and was ultimately found guilty of animal cruelty.

She spent several weeks in jail but refused to comply with mandatory mental fitness evaluations and therapy. Once released from jail, her probation was not monitored, so she left Oregon and began hoarding again in another state. The good news is that her case taught Miller and many others involved in animal welfare a lot about the problem of animal hoarding and was the catalyst for the passage of several laws that have helped prosecute hoarders and protect animals.

Helping Hoarders and Their Animal Victims

According to Dr. Miller, the recidivism rate for animal hoarding is estimated to be 100%. "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. Experts agree that increasing public awareness of animal hoarding as a psychiatric condition will result in earlier detection of hoarding cases.

Also, standard policies for effective interventions must be implemented, and should provide assistance for both the animals and the hoarder. In most animal hoarding interventions, the animals are removed, but the person receives no further attention. Since hoarders don't comprehend that the animals removed from their care were severely neglected, they typically turn right around and start a new hoard. They need mental health treatment immediately to prevent a recurrence.

If you're concerned that a neighbor, family member or friend may be an animal hoarder (or an object hoarder), you can make your own risk assessment using the HOMES Scale. If you feel your suspicions are warranted, contact your local humane society, police department, or animal control department. I realize this will probably be a difficult call to make, but consider the following, from The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium:

"Failure to provide proper care for animals is a crime in every state. Although animal hoarders may suffer from a variety of mental health problems and behavioral predispositions, including how they respond to stress, that preclude them from providing proper care for companion animals, it is rare that they are found incompetent to stand trial.

Furthermore, even though 'intent' to harm may be lacking, most hoarding cases are characterized by a series of very deliberate acts and choices made by the hoarder, which placed their interest above the interests of animals (continuing to acquire, refusal of help, unwillingness to adopt, failure to seek medical care, failure to spay-neuter, etc.) that could all could lead to animal suffering and neglect."5