We all know the stereotype of the “crazy cat lady”. An older woman living alone with 12 cats in a stinky house. But extreme animal hoarding can result in pets becoming sick or dying. In these cases, what is the best way to prevent repeat behavior?
In December 2015, animal welfare agents discovered a woman in Pitman, New Jersey., who housed nearly 130 cats in deplorable conditions. The level of ammonia from the cat urine was so high that workers were required to wear hazmat suits inside the home.
The Humane Society of the United States recommends long term treatment for animal hoarders and in extreme cases, involving animal cruelty, jail time.
What happens in New Jersey?
“Usually they either get arrested or pulled from the home,” said Stacie DeBolt, Director of Operations at the AWA. “Our resources are getting better, but there aren’t a lot of resources for hoarders to get the help they need and they end up going back and doing the same thing over and over.”
Research on animal hoarding suggests that somewhere between 80 to 100 percent of animal hoarders relapse without treatment. But whether hoarders should receive psychiatric treatment or criminal processing is not entirely agreed upon.
Most states require people convicted for animal cruelty or animal hoarding to pay up to $5,000 in penalties but do not go to jail. In 2008, New Jersey failed to pass a bill that could send some animal hoarders to prison for as long as 18 months.
DeBolt disagrees with jailing hoarders. She said hoarding is not a criminal action. It is a mental illness. “Jail is not the place for hoarders to be, it is not the right system for them,” DeBolt said. “Most of these people are sick. They have a broken switch, that’s the best way I can think to explain it.”
Experts have only just begun to come to a consensus on what causes someone to hoard animals. Hoarding was originally thought to be a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but in 2007, the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (HARC) found no strong association between the two. The group’s findings stated that “there is a growing consensus that hoarding has more differences than similarities with OCD.” While hoarding, both of objects and animals, was considered a symptom of OCD, HARC found that animal hoarders typically showed no other OCD symptoms, making it difficult to actually link the two diagnoses.
Research has suggested that there are a number of similarities between animal hoarders though. A survey done in 1981 by Dolley Worth and Alan M. Beck found that around 70 percent of animal hoarders are single women. A similar trend was found in 1999 by Dr. Gary Patronek. But linking hoarding to personality is difficult, says Dr. Debra Salzman, a clinical psychologist who works with object hoarders as an OCD specialist.
“Everyone can come to hoarding from a different place,” Salzman said. “We don’t look to categorize personality types, it’s more looking at the behaviors and the role that [hoarding] plays in your life.”
The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) recognized animal hoarding as a psychiatric disorder for the first time in 2013. It described the disorder as an “excessive attachment to animals, commonly in response to childhood neglect or abuse.”
Maya Richmond, Executive Director of the AWA, says that many other hoarding cases start with a “savior’s mentality” or in failed rescue groups. These groups attempt to save as many animals as they can from “kill shelters” where animals are euthanized if they cannot be placed in a home.
“They’re thinking what they’re doing is in the best interest of the animal,” Richmond said. “And they just keep accumulating and accumulating [animals], and they’re not successful, but they think they’re doing the best they can.”
When the rescue group fails to find homes for its animals, they end up in tightly packed spaces and without sufficient care.
“They pull all these animals off the ‘kill list’ and now they become a hoarder because they get overwhelmed and they can’t place them. But [they think] they’re going to save them,” DeBolt said.
It’s often not until sanitation levels dive so low that neighbors report the smell of urine and feces overtaking the street that anyone becomes aware of what’s happening inside the house, Richmond says. Once the house is entered, it could take weeks to properly find and treat the animals. Once they’ve all been rescued, preparing them to be around humans again can be a long process.
“There are two types of animals,” DeBolt said. “They’re either fear reactive or fear-biters – that’s the worst thing to deal with, anything fear motivated are the most difficult cases – and there are the ones that just shut down but come back around really quickly.”
Hadley is part of the latter group. At the AWA she rubs her shiny black coat against the gate of her kennel when people walk into the room. She stands by the opening, not in the back of crate, inspecting each prospective owner when they approach the cage.
“She’s a good cat, she’s really come around,” DeBolt said. “There are some good stories that come out of hoarding.”