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. “I’m the Mother Teresa for cats,” 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 carry 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.
It’s 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 I’ve 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 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 don’t have problems with it. Farm families, for example, often have dozens of barn cats to keep the rodent population in control. These animals aren’t pets and the families don’t attribute special qualities to them or develop special relationships with them. They are simply a part of farm life.