Animal Hoarding: Recognize The Signs

By Alicia Bailey

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Photo by Alicia Bailey

Animal hoarding is a severe form of animal abuse that often goes undetected until the situation gets out of control. In May of this year, two local hoarding cases made the news. One, in Coachella Valley—a woman was caught disposing of puppies in a dumpster and then found to have 38 animals in her home in deplorable conditions. A second, larger case came to light in Orange, California, where authorities rescued more than 130 animals from a hoarding situation.

When these stories come out, communities and pet lovers express outrage and wonder, “How did this happen?” or “How could we possibly have known?” It’s easy to turn a blind eye to those in our community who may be hoarding. And, without much legislation defining hoarding, it often goes unseen and unreported until it’s out of hand. A hoarder could be your neighbor who has cats in the window—but you don’t know how many. Or it could be the guy down the street who takes in all the stray animals—he’s so nice. But has he ever actually let you inside his home?

Warning Signs

According to the ASPCA, the signs and symptoms of an animal hoarder include the following:

■ They have numerous animals (living and dead) and may not know the total number of animals in their care.

■ Their home has deteriorated (e.g., dirty windows, broken furniture, holes in the walls and floors, extreme clutter).

■ There is a strong smell of ammonia, and floors may be covered with dried feces, urine, vomit, etc.

■ Animals are emaciated, lethargic, and not well socialized.

■ Fleas and vermin are present.

■ The individual is isolated from the community and appears to neglect him- or herself.

■ The individual insists that all their animals are happy and healthy—even when there are clear signs of distress and illness.

“Don’t talk yourself out of calling authorities because you don’t want to offend someone or cause drama. It’s better to let animal control investigate a suspected hoarder’s home than wonder if you failed the pets in need by failing to heed your instincts and intuition.”

— Tom Snyder, Animal Samaritans

Other signs:

■ Animals presenting birth defects as a result of poor care or unintentional inbreeding.

■ Subtle signs, such as not allowing people to go past a certain point in their home.

■ A room or rooms filled with incessant barking.

■ A big red flag if you are purchasing an animal from a breeder, or in some instances, a hoarder posing as a rescuer—they do not allow you to visit the space where the animal is kept.

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), a hoarding disorder is present when a person “saves items that others may view as worthless” and they have a “persistent difficulty” parting with the possessions. Hoarding disorders occur in an estimated 2 to 6 percent of the population and are most common in older adults, especially between the ages of 55 and 94.

Animal hoarding is not specifically defined by the APA, but the ASPCA calls it “an inability to provide even minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, shelter, and veterinary care—often resulting in animal starvation, illness and death.” It’s a dire situation that goes beyond the human health hazards of hoarding and threatens the very lives of these trapped animals.

Most of the time, an animal hoarder believes they’re helping the animals they’ve collected. They often brush off the deplorable environment and poor condition of the animals, deluding themselves into believing that they are “happy and healthy.”

Very little psychiatric material addresses animal hoarding, but researchers who have explored the legalities behind the phenomenon compare animal hoarding to the likes of substance abuse, anxiety disorders, and OCD, reports Michigan State University’s Animal Legal and Historical Center.

The Innocent Victims

The Center reports that every year, a quarter of a million animals fall victim to hoarding. Once rescued from a hoarding situation, animals typically go into the care of legitimate rescue organizations and municipal shelters. There, the healing process for the animals can take a long time and put a tremendous strain on the organization’s resources. Many animals have never had veterinary treatment; they must be quarantined and may be unable to be adopted until the courts (if involved) decide what to do.

A bath, a bed, and nutritious food are only the first steps in rescuing these animals. Many victims of animal hoarding are not socialized, fear humans, and are in shock, refusing to allow any human touch. It’s heartbreaking to see the continued suffering of the animals, and it’s only through the patient dedication of rescuers that they are ever ultimately rehabilitated, giving them the chance to be adopted into loving homes.

The animal welfare nonprofit Maddie’s Fund offers a free online guide, Therapeutic Insights for Treating Animals from [Puppy] Mills and Hoarding. Some suggestions for helping rehabilitate traumatized pets include establishing a routine, speaking to the animal in a calm voice, giving the pet his or her own time to accept human touch, and interaction with other pets. The guide recommends giving praise, reassurance, positive reinforcement, and most importantly, patience.

Allowing the animal to gain confidence in their own time will be monumental in their rehabilitation, say the experts at Maddie’s Fund.

REFERENCES

ASPCA

https://www.aspca.org/animal-cruelty/animal-hoarding

American Psychiatric Association

https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/hoarding-disorder/what-is-hoarding-disorder

Animal Legal and Historical Center

https://www.animallaw.info/article/detailed-discussion-animal-hoarding#id-26

Maddie’s Fund

https://www.maddiesfund.org/therapeutic-insights-for-treating-animals-from-mills-and-hoarding.htm

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