The cat lady cometh

Unable to turn away a homeless pet? It may be more than a simple love of animals.

The only real research into hoarding concerns animal hoarding. Because animal shelter operators and city officials have dealt with animal hoarders for years, they are more well-known. The local television crews love to zoom in on the piles of animal feces and dead animals and shake their collective heads.

In 1999, a researcher surveyed animal shelter operators about their experiences with people who hoard animals. Detailed information was obtained on 54 cases. An animal hoarder was defined as “someone who accumulates a large number of animals; fails to provide minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation and veterinary care; and fails to act on the deteriorating condition of the animals (including disease, starvation and even death) or the environment (severely overcrowded and unsanitary conditions), or the negative impact of the collection on their own health and well-being.”

Most cases were female (76 percent); a large proportion (46 percent) were 60 years of age or older; most were single, divorced or widowed; and almost half lived alone. The most common animals involved were cats (65 percent). Based on the data collected, it is estimated that there are 700 to 2,000 new cases of animal hoarding every year in the United States.

The conditions described were fairly consistent in both studies. Dead or sick animals were discovered in 80 percent of reported cases, yet in nearly 60 percent of cases, the hoarder would not acknowledge the problem. In 69 percent of cases, animal feces and urine accumulated in living areas, and more than one-fourth of the hoarders’ beds were soiled with feces or urine. Justifications for their behavior included an intense love of animals, the feeling that animals were surrogate children, the belief that no one else would or could take care of them, and the fear that the animals would be euthanized.

A significant number of hoarders had non-functioning utilities. The hoarders all firmly believed they had a special ability to communicate and/or empathize with animals. Furthermore, the hoarders insisted their animals were healthy and cared for. This claim, in the midst of clear and immediate information to the contrary, suggests a belief system out of touch with reality.

Can you really blame them? One interesting finding is that, outside the context of their relationship to their animals, many of these people appear reasonably normal and healthy. There’s a great deal of misinformation still in circulation about the disorder. Recently, Dr. Phil had a woman on his show who owned 200 cats. He commended the woman for their shared love of animals, while her neighbors described it as “living next to a 10-acre litter box.”