Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Community Activism is Key to Preventing Hoarding


Pet Column for the week of May 4, 2009

Related information:

Services - Human-Animal Bond

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ashley Mitek
Information Specialist

It is estimated that at least 250,000 animals fall victim to animal hoarders each year, according to Tufts University's Animal Hoarding Research Consortium, a group that acts to increase awareness about the disorder. Because our legal system is not very effective in prosecuting hoarders, and many refuse mental health counseling, the best way to prevent animal suffering is for communities to play an active role in prevention.

Everyone has heard of the "crazy cat lady," the older woman who lives alone and has more than the average number of feline friends roaming around. But just because a person has a lot of animals, does not necessarily make them a hoarder. "It's not the number of animals that someone owns, but it is the animal's quality of life," says Dr. Stephanie LaFarge, a psychologist and senior director of counseling services at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Her office, located just down the street from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana,Ill., is also home to the National Animal Poison Control Center.

What separates an animal hoarder from an overzealous animal lover is the animal's care, living conditions, and ability to receive veterinary treatment. Hoarders are unable to meet their pet's most minimal needs. Despite that fact, "these people think they are the only person in the world who can give the best care to their animals," explains Dr. LaFarge.

Animal hoarders are not always elderly females either. Several cases have involved seemingly normal people such as a well-liked secretary and even a veterinarian. Dr. LaFarge mentions that there are probably several factors that go into how a person develops into an animal hoarder, but "we think it may be related to obsessive-compulsive personality disorder."

Because the stereotype of a little old lady walking into a court room to face several counts of animal abuse tends to make judges and juries feel sympathetic for the "criminal," the legal system rarely prosecutes these people. Unfortunately, "just one hoarder can cause tremendous suffering to animals," notes Dr. LaFarge. It's not just one animal that was abused or neglected, it is usually hundreds that have suffered in deplorable conditions, many of these animals enduring a slow and painful death.

Since the legal system can't stop them, although it may slow them down, most hoarders go back to hoarding whenever they finish probation or mandated mental health treatments. "It's just like substance abuse," says Dr. LaFarge, "it's a matter of time before most relapse." The research and case follow-ups collected at Tufts University's Animal Hoarding Research Consortium back up Dr. LaFarge's experience. According to their data, the recidivism rate is nearly 100 percent.

So how do we prevent animal suffering from hoarders if the legal system can't stop it? "Animal hoarding is the failure of the community to notice the problem and speak up," says Dr. LaFarge. What really needs to happen is the development of a community response team to identify hoarders and make sure they are not starting to relapse.

In the end, it takes a whole community to prevent harm to animals. If you suspect someone is a hoarder, call your local humane society and ask to speak with an animal control officer.

If you would like more information on hoarding you can visit the Tufts University Web site at www.tufts.edu/vet/cfa/hoarding/ or the ASPCA's page at www.aspca.org/site/PageServer?pagename=cruelty_animalhoarding.