Other people truly are 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 because of 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, 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; 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 simply to 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.
On 3 Oct 2005
By John M. Grohol, Psy.D.