“Loving” Animals to Death
On January 21, 2011 Jerry Higgins – a volunteer cruelty agent with the Etobicoke Humane Society – with a warrant and assistance from Toronto Animal Services removed 30 cats – many very ill – from an Etobicoke residence. Two of the animals were so ill a veterinarian recommended euthanasia. Some of the felines are now in the care of the Etobicoke Humane Society; some are with Toronto Animal Services and some remain in vet care. This rescue was the Etobicoke Humane Society’s fifth – but not largest – feline hoarding rescue case since February 2010.
Throughout Canada and North America, millions of people successfully and responsibly take in homeless animals; unfortunately, there are some individuals – and it appears the numbers are growing – that go to unhealthy, dangerous and extreme lengths resulting in what experts call “animal hoarding.”
According to the Ontario SPCA, “Thousands of animals in Ontario are affected each year, yet due to the nature of animal hoarding; countless cases remain undetected and unreported.”
What is animal hoarding?
Most experts – such as those of the Animal Hoarding Research Consortium –generally recognize three key components that define animal hoarding:
1) Having more than what most would consider the typical number of animals.
2) The inability to provide even the most minimal standards of shelter, sanitation, nutrition and veterinary care, often resulting in starvation, illness and death of the animal.
3) Denial of the inadequate conditions and their impact on the animals and humans in the household.
Why people hoard animals
Experts are not certain of all the underlying causes, so there are many theories about why people become and/or remain animal hoarders, but experts have identified the following possible causes that lead to animal hoarding:
· Inability to understand and reason about information regarding animal needs, treatment options and action alternatives.
· Various psychological reactions to stress.
· Insufficient ability to comprehend consequences.
· Mental disorganization.
· Unrealistic self-image.
· Weak/ poor/ faulty self-governance.
· “Magical” thinking and various other cognitive distortions.
· Inability to control impulses.
· Addiction issues.
· Childhood trauma and/or instability.
According to Gary Patronek, director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University, “We’d like to study it more.” Patronek says, “Is it a syndrome in and of itself? Probably not. But [one day] we might like it to be included as a warning sign [in psychological evaluation].” In Municipal Lawyer magazine, Patronek wrote, “Perhaps the most prominent psychological feature of these individuals is that pets (and other possessions) become central to the hoarder’s core identity. The hoarder develops a strong need for control, and just the thought of losing an animal can produce an intense grief-like reaction. Preliminary HARC interviews also suggest that hoarders grew up in chaotic households, with inconsistent parenting, in which animals may have been the only stable feature.”
Is there a “typical” hoarder?
Statistically, there is some data loosely indicating a higher incidence of animal hoarding among poor, single and older women. In fact, hoarding crosses all social, economic, age and gender boundaries. Hoarders often appear quite normal to those on the outside.
Why are cats the most common victims of animal hoarding?
Most believe that it is simply because cats are so prolific and easy to obtain and hide. In addition, while a hoarder may have a variety of animals, experts say they tend to stay with a favourite species. Pet hoarding however, occurs with a variety of animals including dogs, rabbits, ferrets, birds, guinea pigs and farm animals such as goats, chickens and cattle. Some animal hoarders also hoard inanimate objects, which makes the crowded conditions even worse.
Common emotions and mindset of animal hoarders
According to psychologist, hoarding experts and social workers, many animal hoarders feel an intense “love” for the animals. They may refer to the animals as their “children.” Most animal hoarders appear to lack awareness of their inability to take care of the animals they have. They deny that there is a problem and often become antagonistic, sometimes violent, when confronted with this reality or the threat of losing the animals. Many animal hoarders see themselves on a mission to save animals and believe they are protecting and acting out of love for the animals. They see themselves as being the only ones that can care for the animals; many hoarders feel isolated.
Frighteningly, animal hoarding has almost a 100% recidivism (repeat offense) rate. This may well be due to the complex psychological and emotional factors that lead to and/or sustain the behaviour.
What is the difference between animal hoarding and simply having a lot of pets?
Many individuals and families have multiple pets and are able to provide adequate, often superior pet care in a clean, safe and stable environment. Some are acting in an official capacity as a foster home for a humane society or rescue group, which in turn, ensure that the foster home is maintaining proper standards. This is in stark comparison to animal hoarding situations in which the individual is clearly unable to provide proper care for the many animals in their home – or often themselves – often living in horrific and unsanitary conditions.
Animal hoarding compared to animal sheltering and rescue
A legitimate shelter, foster home, rescue group or sanctuary maintains and enforces proper standards of care. These standards put the needs and welfare of the animals first. They operate in an “open” environment; they encourage volunteer participation and visitors and are willing and open to answering questions about the care and welfare of the animals.
Health risks to animals
1. Severe overcrowding contributes to the spread of disease. In addition, where more than one species of animal are in close proximity in overcrowded conditions, aggression can occur. To prevent fighting, some hoarders may confine animals to tiny cages or pins, or very short tethers, causing the animals to remain in distress, often lying in their own feces and urine.
2. Buildup of animal feces and urineis a significant health risk, contributes to parasitic infestation and can lead to life threatening levels of ammonia buildup, harmful to animals and people. According to the OSPCA, in many hoarding cases, cruelty agents find urine and feces throughout the residence, even on walls, floors, countertops and in cupboards.
3. Lack of sufficient food and water poses serious, sometimes deadly risks for animals. Malnourishment weakens defenses against disease. Hunger may also lead to aggressive, sometimes deadly behaviour among the animal victims.
4. Absence of veterinary care may be due to one or more factors:
a) Inability of the hoarder to realize animals are sick or injured.
b) Lack of financial resources to pay vet bills.
c) Fear of being forced to give up their animals therefore, illness, injury and/or disease are untreated and become more severe, often leading to death or the humane need for euthanasia.
Health risks to humans
1. The presence of animal waste prevents sanitary means of food storage and preparation, which puts residents at risk of contracting food-related illnesses and parasites.
2. Insect and rodent infestation can both follow and worsen hoarding conditions and can potentially spread to the surrounding environment, including nearby buildings.
3. Animal diseases transmittable to humans are known as zoonotic diseases. Animal hoarders are often subject to severe zoonotic diseases, spread through large numbers of animals in a crowded environment. This is a serious public health concern and potentially lethal. Examples of zoonotic diseases include: influenza, rabies, cat scratch fever, hookworm and ringworm. Toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease, can be transmitted to humans through cat feces and is known to cause severe birth defects or stillbirth in the case of infected pregnant women. Disease transmittal from animals to humans can occur in a variety of ways:
a. Large liquid droplets –when animals sneeze, cough or vocalize – meet human mucous membranes.
b. Smaller infection particles are transmitted in the air and inhaled (for example, during cage cleaning).
c. Unwashed hands that have contacted feces, contaminated fur or surfaces, can transmit disease.
d. Drinking or eating contaminated food.
e. Animal scratches and bites can transmit pathogens.
f. Human open wounds and mucous membranes are often entry points for pathogens.
g. Ticks, fleas and mosquitoes on the animals or in the premises can carry zoonotic pathogens.
4. Air Quality: The air in animal hoarding residences often has a high level of:
a. Volatile organic compounds such as ammonia. In some hoarding situations, ammonia levels are far greater than the maximum safety levels established by government health agencies.
b. Allergens such as dust mites, animal dander, rodent droppings, tobacco smoke, etc.
c. Mold growth which is common in hoarding situations and is caused by damp conditions indoors. Abundant mold spores can cause or worsen existing health conditions, including allergies and asthma.
5. Injuries: Injuries in homes plagued by hoarding are common and often caused by:
a. Poor lighting due to lack of electricity or resident’s personal preference for a dark environment.
b. Animal bites and scratches due to the animal victims’ severe stress, illness, hunger, fear, pain or dominance competition. This can occur even with normally docile animals, because hoarded animals often don’t behave like domestic animal companions.
c. Unsafe physical features of the residence such as floors, stairs and electrical wiring may rot or become damaged, causing falls, fires, etc.
d. Bites from vermin and insect pests in the residence attracted by food and waste accumulation.
How you can help
If you know someone that is hoarding animals, below are ways in which you can help:
· Call your local humane society. If you do not have one, call your city government for relevant resources.
· Educate others about the animal and human suffering that are part of animal hoarding.
· Reassure the animal hoarder that it is safe to accept the help for their animals and themselves.
· Volunteer your time at shelters and for rescue groups that take in hoarding-case animals.
· Support legislation that seeks to pass lawsthat recognize hoarding as unlawful and providemandatory treatment.
· Keep in touch. If any hoarded animals are deemed unadoptable and if help is available to the hoarder, with a monitoring system to ensure proper animal care and no further hoarding, it may be appropriate to spay or neuter the “unadoptable” animals and return them to the residence if local laws permit.