People Who Hoard Animals in Psychiatric Times is one of scant few in-depth looks at the mental health issues behind animal hoarding. Once known as animal collecting and commonly stereotyped as the “crazy cat lady” (cats are most common but many animals are involved) research in recent years still yields no clear cause or diagnosis. Legislation in Illinois defines it with three components:

  • More than the typical number of companion animals
  • Inability to provide even minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, shelter, and veterinary care, with this neglect often resulting in starvation, illness, and death
  • Denial of the inability to provide this minimum care and the impact of that failure on the animals, the household, and human occupants of the dwelling

There are several theoretical psychological models comparing to delusional disorder, early-onset dementia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD symptoms of hoarding possessions does parallel hoarding animals in key areas.

Hoarding of possessions involves three classes of problematic behaviors: acquisition, saving and disorganization… Like people who hoard possessions, animal hoarders often lack insight into the problematic nature of their behavior. A common and peculiar characteristic of people who hoard animals is a persistent and powerful belief that they are providing proper care for their animals, despite clear evidence to the contrary. In some cases, the home environment is so seriously impaired that the house must be torn down (Patronek, 1999). Careful assessment is needed to determine if this reflects a delusional disorder or overvalued ideation in the context of OCD.

Another perspective:

A recently developed cognitive-behavioral model describes compulsive hoarding as a multifaceted problem that stems from several deficits or difficulties (Frost and Hartl, 1996). These include information-processing problems, problems with emotional attachments to possessions and distorted beliefs about possessions. Avoidance of each of these problems leads to the chaos and clutter.

The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (HARC) at Tufts is a research group taking an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the problem and looking at solutions. In addition to a web site providing information about health issues, animal welfare, intervention, photos, and more, they’ve just released the proceeding of a forum titled ANIMAL HOARDING: Structuring Interdisciplinary Responses to Help People, Animals, and Communities at Risk (download PDF or order a hard copy from HARC).

Animal hoarding is a complex problem and its study is still in infancy, but as an estimated 250,000 animals a year in the USA are affected in over 5,000 cases a year, developing effective intervention, treatment and prevention is vital.