The Rescuers

Why people hoard animals, and what we can do about it

He called himself a dog breeder.

MG was 51-years-old and lived in San Diego, California. A woman wanted to buy a puppy from him. She went to his property to see the dog and, there, she heard “disturbed barking.” When MG offered a dog for sale, she said it smelled of feces and urine. The potential customer asked to see where the other dogs are. MG refused.

Shortly thereafter, the woman contacted San Diego Animal Control who dutifully came out to MG’s property. They found 150 dogs locked in unclean crates with little food or water in sight. “You can tell by just looking at those dogs how well they are cared for,” MG said. Seven were in such bad health that they were euthanized. Many of the rest were emaciated and had a skin condition called “urine scald,” a kind of burn caused by uninterrupted contact with urine.

“Those dogs you have,” MG said to Animal Control, “I’ve taken those dogs to a vet. The vet said they should be put to sleep, but I couldn’t do it, so I brought them home and took care of them.”

“They are doing better now,” he added.

In our divided society, what can bring folks together are a fondness for animals and an antipathy for animal hoarding. Whereas many people are comfortable with the idea of a zoo, a “private zoo” of dirty and malnourished cats and dogs elicits disgust.

A community of animal hoarding experts – social scientists, veterinarians, civil servants, and animal rights activists among them – ask:

Why do people hoard animals?

And what can be done about it?


To be an animal hoarder, you have to meet certain conditions. First, you have an unusual number of animals. What is considered unusual depends on where you live. In Michigan, it’s a minimum of ten animals, and in Hawaii, it’s 15.

Second, the animals you keep lack adequate shelter, live in an unclean environment, are malnourished, and rarely receive the medical care that they need.

If you meet these conditions, you are party to two more. For one, the animals you collected die or are chronically hurt or sick. Either way, they are likely to spread disease. For another, the very place where animals are hoarded is harmful to the hoarders and their household.

There is a final condition: persistence. Despite all of these problems, you collect more animals. Chances are, even after you’re caught and they take the animals away, you’ll do it again.

Cat Lady Stereotype

Most US homes have a pet, but animal hoarding appears to be rare. The experts reckon that, in the US, there is anywhere between two to five thousand animal hoarding cases a year.

Counting cases is difficult. There is no central database of animal cruelty. Crimes against animals are under-reported and they are costly to investigate. Although studies since the 1980s adumbrate that animal hoarders tend to be unmarried older women, crime data – what crimes are reported and who is likely to be reported on – is notoriously biased against folks on the lower rungs of the social ladder.

Fact is, anyone can hoard: men and women, young and old, married and single, the retired, the jobless, and even professionals like nurses, teachers, professors, and veterinarians.

Emotional Rescue

Why people hoard animals is hard to fathom.

Hoarding is an attempt to “save” something. Hoarders struggle to discard their hoard because they have an emotional connection to it or they see their stuff as potentially useful. Although the clutter causes problems, hoarders don’t think so, or, if they do, they put off doing something about it.

The experts disagree on the psychology of it. Some think that hoarding animals is like hoarding newspapers or hats and the like, and chalk it up to addiction. Others think it’s a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

No matter the psychology or demographics, most animal hoarders are of a few social types.

Some animal hoarders are just overwhelmed. They had some animals, and then they lost a job, or got sick and disabled, and slowly but surely became unable to care for those animals. Pet ownership unwittingly morphed into abuse.

Others hoard for their own pleasure or gain. They exploit animals. They run “puppy mills.”

The majority of known cases are those who see themselves as selflessly rescuing animals from a dark fate. These rescuers often have a very large number of animals. Some once ran a shelter and fell on hard times. The rescuers believe that they alone can save the animals and provide them with the proper care – generally some form of homeopathy, or perhaps nothing at all. All rescuers are against euthanasia.

Photo by Ricky LK on Unsplash

It Takes a Village

Hoarding is a risky business that spreads into the community. The home conditions are unsanitary fire hazards. Infectious diseases circulate – to humans and to other animals. Often, it’s the neighbors and visitors who notice the filthy home, the bad smell, and the alarming noises, and report the hoarder to the authorities.

Once the hoarder becomes known to the authorities, the whole city can get involved. Besides animal control, hoarding falls within the jurisdiction of a web of agencies: police, social services, child welfare, and health, housing, and zoning, to name a few. The hoarder is rarely cooperative. They distrust the authorities that they believe will kill the animals. They will attempt to evade, often covering the window with newspapers or aluminum foil.

Consider the case of HK in Omaha, Nebraska.

HK is nearly 60-years-old and feels that she has to take in sick and injured cats. “They have nowhere else to go and shelters will surely kill them all,” she said. Local police and the state humane society have visited her on a half dozen occasions. The first time they came (they wanted to take the animals), HK threatened suicide. On one of these visits they found 212 live cats – almost all of them sick – and 65 dead ones, some of which were in the freezer. Eventually, the city condemned her home.

There is no easy solution. Experts believe that there are over a hundred million cats and dogs in the US. Each animal is a life. Animals breed. Some become pets and some become strays. They all need food, shelter, and, when sick, medical care. A well-meaning person may respond to the circle of life by turning them into pets or with what they believe is caretaking. It can turn into animal hoarding.

But there are better solutions. Some experts reason that the age-old myopic cycle of forcible intervention, punishment, euthanasia, and recidivism harms humans and animals. To break the cycle, they advocate for animal and human welfare: instead of treating the hoarder as a hardened criminal, they want to educate the hoarder in proper animal care, provide free on-site animal population control (spaying and neutering), and conduct regular veterinary check-ups.

The hoarder’s rescuer heart may be in the right place, but a hoarder’s gonna hoard.

We can turn the scene of the crime into a shelter of hope.


This piece was written by Josh Dubrow and based on “Animal Hoarding” by Arnold Arluke, Gary Patronek, Randall Lockwood and Allison Cardona in J. Maher et al. (eds.), The Palgrave International Handbook of Animal Abuse Studies (2017) and Mary E. Dozier, Christiana Bratiotis, Dominique Broadnax, Jenny Le, and Catherine R. Ayers, “A description of 17 animal hoarding case files from animal control and a humane society,” published in Psychiatry Research 272 (2019): 365-368. A useful summary of animal hoarding research is found in Kayleigh Hill, David Yates, Rachel Dean, and Jenny Stavisky, “A novel approach to welfare interventions in problem multi-cat households,” published in BMC Veterinary Research 15, no. 1 (2019): 1-12.

He called himself a dog breeder… Story from Dozier et al, p. 367

To be an animal hoarder… From Arluke et al, p. 108

In Michigan… Hill et al, p. 2

“Most” is an estimated 68 percent and “anywhere between two to five thousand cases…” are from Arluke et al, p. 109. People hoard all types of animals, but the most common are cats and dogs, with birds, rabbits, and rodents close behind (Arluke et al, pp. 110 – 111).

Counting cases is difficult… Based on information in Arluke et al, pp. 109 – 110 and Dozier et al, p. 365

Hoarding is … Dozier et al, p. 365. Animal hoarders do not necessarily hoard things – inanimate objects – but some do (Arluke et al, pp. 110 – 111).

Most animal hoarders are of a few social types… From Arluke et al, pp. 112 – 113

Fire hazards and infectious diseases… Dozier et al, p. 365. And yet, some people in the neighborhood use the animal hoarding property as a drop-off location for animals they find. They don’t want the unwanted animal to die in a shelter. They take the easy way out; they add to the hoarder’s hoard.

Consider the case of HK… Dozier et al, p. 367. HK shoplifted cat food at the pet store so often that, whenever she came in, employees had to follow her around.

Copyright Occam’s Press 2021: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND






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