Too Many Cats: A Call for Compassion

by Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

From my files:

When the Board of Health went into the home, they discovered 38 cats and three dogs living in squalor with an elderly brother and sister. Feces and urine covered the floor. Most of the animals were sick and dirty. But their owners insisted that they loved their animals and that they did a good job caring for them.

When Mary, age 50, married Bill, age 58, she knew he loved cats and that he had quite a few. She wasn't prepared for cats on the counters, cats in their bed, cats on the table when they had meals, and cats having first rights to every chair. She was even less happy with money going to special cat food instead of bills and the amount of time every day that Bill devoted to talking to his cats instead of paying attention to her. When she complained, Bill said, "If you try to separate me from my cats, you will have to leave." After five months of trying unsuccessfully to get him to change, she filed for divorce.

A 48-year-old woman was discovered to have over 70 cats, many of them ill, living in her home. ďIím the Mother Theresa for cats,Ē she replied when asked why she had so many. She went on to explain that over the years she had rescued each of the animals because it was sick, injured, or a stray. She was convinced that only she could provide the care they needed.

The neighbors of an elderly woman complained of a horrible smell coming from her third floor apartment. When police went to investigate, they found dozens of cats. Too frail to get litter up to her walk-up apartment or to change the boxes, their owner had trained the cats to use her former bedroom as a giant litter box. She insisted that the animals were like children to her and that they were the only beings that had ever made her feel truly loved.

Itís remarkable how many people have heard stories like these! And yet, there is little in the psychiatric literature about the phenomenon of over-accumulating pets. But Iíve found that when I talk about it, often enough the listener knows someone who knew someone who had so many animals that they overwhelmed her ability to care for them. Usually, these situations come to the attention of Boards of Health, animal rescue organizations, and the legal system instead of the mental health system. But studies now show that many, if not most, of the people who create a lifestyle that is overrun by animals are mentally ill.

Our communities need to reconsider how these cases are handled. Often, a Board of Health will condemn the home, euthanize the animals, and perhaps take the owners to court for destruction of property and/or cruelty to animals. The owner is then left to cope with the loss of the animals, the loss of her or his home, and the loss of the organizing principle (the relationship with the animals) that has kept her or him marginally functional. The experience is devastating. Sometimes it results in homelessness and an increase in the symptoms of mental illness.

When a Lot of Animals is NOT a Problem

There certainly are people who live their lives surrounded by animals and who donít have problems with it. Farm families, for example, often have dozens of barn cats to keep the rodent population in control. These animals arenít pets and the families donít attribute special qualities to them or develop special relationships with them. They are simply a part of farm life.

Other people are truly cat or dog lovers and have many pets. These people take good care of the animals and maintain a balanced life that includes self-care, work, friends, and family. Although very fond of their pets, they don't let their relationships with the animals dominate their lives to the exclusion of people and activities.

Still other animal lovers find a way to make a living based on their passion for animals. Professions that are a positive expression of caring for animals include being a breeder or a veterinarian, running a stable, or managing a shelter for homeless cats and dogs. In all cases, these professionals provide appropriate care and have a realistic understanding of the relationship between themselves and their animals.

When Multiple Pets May Indicate a Mental Illness

People whose lives are unmanageable due to the number of animals that share their home are usually suffering from some form of mental illness. Symptoms of mental illness may include some combination of the following:

  • The individual believes that she or he is offering the animals exceptional care despite the objective evidence that many are ill, malnourished, dirty, and/or dying;

  • The individual sees the animals as children or siblings and looks to them for love he or she never found with other people;

  • The individual believes that she or he has a special ability to communicate directly with the animals or that there is a spiritual connection with them;

  • The individual feels compelled to bring home any stray or injured animal, believing that only she or he can give it adequate care;

  • The individual's home is so disorganized and cluttered with animals and useless objects that it is impossible to function within it; and/or

  • The individual fails to recognize that the condition of the home is a health risk for people and animals alike.

What Can Be Done? A Call for Compassion

Condemning the building and killing the animals solves the immediate problem for the community, but it does so at a price. Often people who collect animals are surprisingly functional in other ways. Many hold jobs and manage money reasonably. But when they lose their animals and homes, they fall apart. Often these people have no relatives who want to take them in and few resources for starting over. They then become the charge of either the mental health system, the legal system, or both.

A more compassionate approach to the care of these individuals would result in lower human and economic costs. Such an approach might include these elements:

  • Recognizing that the problem is born of illness, not of rebellion, carelessness, irresponsibility, or a desire to act out. If this were the case, the first response would include mental health workers as well as the Board of Health and police.

  • Making treatment available as mental health researchers and practitioners develop more understanding of the phenomenon and models for treatment. Psychotherapy and perhaps some medication can help these individuals keep their homes, keep at least some of their animals, and manage their lives. These people need to be helped into appropriate treatment.

  • Arranging support to help these individuals manage their pets and keep their homes. Deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill has resulted in the development of many excellent community-based services. If we see these people as ill, we need to be willing to provide them with the same supports and direct help (outreach workers, housekeepers, case managers, representative payees) that our communities provide to people with other diagnoses.

There are some communities, especially small towns where the "cat lady" is a town character, where the local authorities try to work with the situation rather than take radical steps to simply end it. We have much to learn by studying the outcomes of these efforts. More research is needed to determine the most effective ways to help.

My guess is that we don't yet know how many people are suffering because they accumulate too many animals. It is, after all, a quiet illness. Unless the situation becomes so out-of-hand that someone makes a report to authorities, it can go on for years and years before anyone notices. by then, the home can become uninhabitable. We need to find ways to identify the problem early and to redefine it as an issue for treatment, not simply an issue for social control.

Date published: 8/18/00
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 9 Oct 2013
    Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.