Dog Hoarders: Who Becomes a Hoarder?

What is animal hoarding and what causes a hoarder to hoard?
By Rebecca Wallick, December 2010, Updated October 2021
More than 100 dogs, two horses, and dozens of ducks, chickens and cats roam a property in Ohio. “The dog feces had caked the floor almost like a carpet,” Detectives said, “and the smell of ammonia was so pungent that it was very difficult getting her 97-year-old mother out of the house.” 

An animal hoarder acquires a large number of animals, then fails to provide them with sufficient food, water, exercise, space, and veterinary care. A hoarder is always in denial about her inability to provide adequate care, even when the bodies of dead animals surround her.

What causes a hoarder to hoard? There’s no consensus, and little research, within the psychological community. In general, it’s believed that most hoarders experienced some psychological trauma early in their lives.

“Hoarding is a seeking of security by controlling,” says Dr. Mary Lou Randour, Professional Outreach Coordinator, Animal Cruelty and Fighting Campaign, Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). “It’s fascinating because no one can understand the lack of insight, how the hoarder can’t see the neglect and deterioration around them. I liken it to anorexics, who look in the mirror and see themselves as fat; it’s a similar denial or psychological mechanism that blocks out the truth.”

Animal hoarding isn’t new, but awareness is low, which contributes to the problem. Society struggles to understand why this particular type of animal cruelty and neglect happens, and how to address it.

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Gary Patronek was a recent veterinary school graduate, working as director of an animal shelter outside Philadelphia in 1988, when he first encountered “collectors,” as they were called back then. “It was a lose-lose situation; often, the animals were euthanized. It was a problem without a solution,” he says. Unable to find anything written about it, Patronek has spent much of his career researching animal hoarders. He’s trying to create awareness of the problem in human medicine and mental health, as well as realistic, effective interventions, turning that lose-lose into a win-win—for the animals as well as society. Patronek has unapologetically been using his positions as V.P. for Animal Welfare at the Animal Rescue League of Boston and adjunct professor at Tufts University’s School of Veterinary Medicine as bully pulpits on the topic.

The stereotype of the “crazy old cat lady” is not too far off. Patronek and colleagues reviewed records of hoarding cases where charges were actually filed and discovered that the most common defendants were middle-aged or older females, unemployed, living alone, or estranged from the family. Patronek points out, though, that animal hoarders can be male or female and from any socioeconomic background. Some even have supportive networks that enable their behavior by bringing them animals or helping care for them.*

The animal hoarder sees herself as a caregiver. This positive perception is essential for her self-esteem. To acknowledge the failure — the neglect — around her would destroy her sense of self. Denial, in the case of the animal hoarder, is truly self-preservation.

Social Impact

“The consequences of animal hoarding include starvation, illness, and death of animals, neglect of self and others, and household destruction,” says Patronek. His research indicates that “… animal hoarding affects at least 3,000 persons per year, devastates considerably more families and relationships, threatens the health of minors and dependent adults, incurs significant costs to communities, and harms hundreds of thousands of animals annually.” He notes that there was a fivefold increase in reports of animal hoarding from 2000 to 2006, a result of both increased incidence and public awareness.

A hoarder can’t be defined simply by the number of animals, but rather, by the level of care provided. “The key is whether the person knows their limits,” says Patronek. “A warning sign of a hoarder is that they have no threshold defining what they can handle and what’s too many. It’s the difference between putting the animal’s needs ahead of their own. If they can’t put the brakes on, that’s a warning sign of a hoarder.” Patronek notes that the best sanctuaries, like Best Friends in Utah, know their limits and put the needs of animals first. Hoarders don’t. They keep acquiring, often seeking out new animals to add to their homes.

This is where things get fuzzy for those of us who want to support animal rescue efforts: the trick is to distinguish between a legitimate and safe rescue operation or sanctuary, and a hoarder masquerading as a rescuer.

Legitimate Rescuer or Animal Hoarder?

A disturbing trend noted by Patronek and others is that hoarders often present themselves as animal rescues, sanctuaries, or no-kill shelters. They use the Internet to get well-meaning people to bring animals to them. “You didn’t see that ten years ago,” Patronek says. “They’re using the rescue status as a dodge. The average person doesn’t know the difference between a legitimate sanctuary and a hoarding situation; they don’t know how to evaluate them.” The hoarder’s need for control can be seen in her unwillingness to adopt out an animal she has saved. “When a rescue-followed-by-adoption program begins to turn into a rescue-and-retain policy, this may be a warning sign for the transition from legitimate caregiving into animal hoarding,” he says.

Dr. Randour agrees. “There are ‘rescue’ organizations that are hoarding operations,” she says. “People are shy to intervene, thinking the person is goodhearted, just trying to help. Report it. You’re not condemning the person; you’re simply asking that an investigation occur. The earlier the intervention, the better — for the animals and the hoarder.”

The animals always suffer in hoarding scenarios. Even if there’s food and water, they rarely have sufficient space, opportunities to play or exercise, or healthy social interactions. When the food begins to run out, the weaker ones die. If they’re rescued, their health and behavioral problems make them difficult to quickly place in homes, sometimes leading to euthanasia.

The hoarder also suffers—from untreated mental health issues; frequently from poor sanitation, lack of adequate food and health care; from social isolation; and from high ammonia levels due to accumulating animal waste.

And, finally, the community suffers. Having to take in large numbers of ill, malnourished animals puts a huge stress on shelters and community resources. Animal control or humane society personnel, even occasionally firefighters or police officers, must enter homes or trailers that may contain hazardous materials or structures. Zoning and code enforcement officers may require the demolition and cleanup of the hoarder’s property. Offenders charged in the legal system often need court-appointed attorneys, while prosecutors spend time charging and negotiating pleas in these cases. The legal system is not well-equipped to handle animal hoarding cases.

What to Do and How to Help?

The best intervention for a hoarding situation? “The earliest,” says Patronek. “That’s the best chance of success, intervening before it becomes a cruelty case.” He notes that anything you’ve read or heard about interventions for other addictive behaviors—drugs, alcohol, gambling—applies here. The animal hoarder is trying to fulfill a deep-seated need with something that ultimately doesn’t work; the animals are a futile, temporary fix for the underlying problems in their lives. “‘Just say no’—when has that ever worked?” Patronek asks. That approach to any addiction is ineffective, he says, and hoarders are no different.

In fact, without intense monitoring and therapy, recidivism among hoarders is virtually 100 percent. “They’re lonely, frustrated, and need a mission,” Patronek says. “Removing their animals doesn’t help them, although it may be necessary to protect the animals. Negotiating with them, allowing them some control, and creating therapeutic alliances can be helpful in certain cases. Go in earlier, and a little softer, putting in place a service plan with provided resources—before animals suffer. It’s the slow process, not a quick fix, which will ultimately work. It will include setbacks, or relapses, just as with other addictions,” he says. Some communities are discovering there are advantages to working with the animal hoarder, monitoring and managing them and the animals. The hoarder is still a caregiver, and the animals receive adequate care and food. The costs of a lengthy legal case are avoided.

The wrong approach? Offering to clean up the hoarder’s home or property. Family and friends who attempt such interventions are forcefully rebuffed. They leave frustrated and confused, wondering how the hoarder could love the animals and their filthy living situation more than them. But clearing the clutter doesn’t address the underlying need for security and control. Taking the stuff away is perceived by the hoarder as a threat. Only by trying to see the hoarder’s world through their eyes can you successfully gain trust and craft an effective intervention. “A careful balance between outside control and autonomy is what’s required—in essence, putting a box around the situation,” says Patronek.

Legal System Intervention

No federal law exists to regulate pet animal care by private owners or shelters. Each state, though, has some form of animal cruelty law, requiring proper shelter, nutrition and water, sanitary living space and necessary health care. Often, the highest hurdle in prosecuting animal cruelty in hoarding cases is proving intent. Each community, each judge, applies their own standards when deciding whether a hoarder failed to provide what Patronek refers to as “quality of life” factors. “She meant well” is the common reason for refusing to convict.

“Animal hoarding is a distinctive type of cruelty that our laws need to recognize,” says Randour. “How do you punish a mental health issue? This is not like a cruelty case where someone intentionally tortures an animal. So, laws need to address the animal health concerns while taking into account the underlying mental health component of the hoarder.”

How should society, and more particularly the legal system, deal with hoarders and the damage they cause to animals and communities? Patronek’s energies are now focused on this question. “Punishment is a tough topic,” he says. “How do you achieve separation between dangerous people and vulnerable animals? Maybe some hoarders, with supervision, can safely keep a few animals. Others have caused so much suffering, are so resistant to cooperation, they need to be in jail.” Patronek says he has no idea whether an outright prohibition against ever owning an animal again works. “Hoarders are good at evading oversight, changing jurisdictions,” he says. “Probation officers don’t want to baby-sit them for years.”

Hoarders are rarely convicted of a felony, such as animal cruelty, which would allow greater post-conviction supervision and create a criminal record that would follow them should they move and start-up again (which they almost always do). In an effort to allow the animals to be quickly removed, treated, and adopted out, hoarders are usually allowed to plead to a misdemeanor charge such as failure to lice or vaccinate or a zoning violation or aren’t charged at all.

Patronek advocates an approach that includes competency evaluations for alleged hoarders and sentences that include ongoing therapy and supervision, as well as tracking so a hoarder can’t start over elsewhere. He is looking at other successful intervention models, such as mental health and drug courts, where defendants agree to complete treatment and be monitored in lieu of jail time. Hoarders could be required to allow inspections of their homes to assess their competency to provide animal care for any animals they’re allowed to keep.

Some local governments now use a task-force approach, bringing together experts and resources from animal welfare, code enforcement, mental health, adult protection, senior services, and law enforcement. They attempt to identify a problem early, gain trust, and work collaboratively for the benefit of all. Be aware. If you suspect someone of hoarding animals, contact your local animal control or humane society. You’re not interfering. You’re helping.

* “Long-term Outcomes in Animal Hoarding Cases,” by Berry, Patronek & Lockwood; Animal Law 11:167.

Photo: Adobe Stock

Rebecca Wallick, was long-time contributing editor for The Bark magazine and retired family law attorney, she lives with two dogs and runs mountain trails at every opportunity.