Animal Hoarding: Too Much of a Good Thing

My full time job at Penn Vet is a focus on animals in shelters, and some of the very unusual circumstances that send them there. One of the most fascinating is the world of animal hoarding.  Those of you in the Philadelphia area know that within the past week, several remarkable examples of animal hoarding made the news.  Animal hoarding is a shelter medicine subject because once the household is discovered, there is usually a need to rapidly remove the animals and to provide triage, medical assessment, and hopefully–rehabilitative care for those pets that can be saved.  Locally, Penn Vet has been helping to plan a full-day symposium for social workers, mental heathcare, elder care, child welfare, and animal welfare professionals on the subject of animal hoarding and hoarding intervention resources.  Because of the numbers of animals involved in some of these cases (not to mention the range of species that can be encountered), these could easily overwhelm a single agency.  A large intervention in rural Pennsylvania last month netted just under 400 cats from one sanctuary–there is no way that would have ended well for the cats without huge investments of human, infrastructural, and dollar resources.  In that instance, the ASPCA, American Humane Association, local humane society, and Penn Vet collaborated to safely remove, examine, test, temporarily shelter, and ultimately adopt out the vast majority of the cats.

For those of us learning about animal hoarding from the veterinary or animal sheltering side of the equation, I confess that there is often no understanding of the mental health challenges which result in a hoarding personality disorder, and there is often little or no sympathy for the human perpetrators.  Often, there is anger and a lot of talk about what punishment should be meted out, not much talk about how to integrate a mental health intervention into the plan. But to live in abjectly squalid, filthy conditions and to profess love and care for the animals dying and dead all around you, is pretty compelling evidence of a mental health deficit.  And those of us centered in the animal care arena of often constitutionally ill-equipped to muster sympathy for people who willingly or not, harm animals.

But punishment isn’t a great protector of animals in this case;  punishment alone will be limted to fines and prohibitions against animal ownership.  The fines are largely uncollectable (these are often destitute individuals with no attachable assets, and prohibitions against pet acquisition are easily circumvented.   Recidivism is nearly 100%, if other measures aren’t taken. Think about it–the most powerful source of comfort and identity for these troubled people is their pets (I know, I know–they’re not living up to their end of the care equation), and a judge is ruling that they may not own pets.  A more successful approach has been used by Anne Irwin of the Bucks County SPCA where they’ve negotiated a number of pets that can be reasonably well-maintained by the individual, and make sure that the pets are appropriated spayed or castrated, in a state of health that is stable and not unduly burdensome, and then maintain a connection over time with them to make sure they have access to resources that are vital (pet food, a source of ongoing veterinary support).  This approach has allowed a number of hoarding interventions to resolve with very positive outcomes, all around.

Next week, several hundred (registration is limited to 300, and we’re bumping against the 200 level right now) professionals will be learning about the problem and also exploring the intervention strategies and resources available for animal hoarding.  I am excited to know that so many are interested and might be recruited to help make the solution more effective, to have far more positive resolutions in the future.

2 Responses to “Animal Hoarding: Too Much of a Good Thing”

  1. On Wednesday at 9PM Confessions: Animal Hoarding will air on Animal Planet. Our goal is to educate people about the circumstances behind animal hoarding and also to do something to help.

  2. Jennifer Spoeri says:

    The symposium was a wealth of information not only about the signs, symptoms, underlying causes and interventions regarding animal hoarding but also how a multi-disciplinary approach can benefit everyone involved!

Leave a Reply