Shocking but true: Earlier this week, 800 small dogs were seized from a filthy triple-wide trailer in Tucson, Ariz., where the elderly residents were overwhelmed trying to care for the animals. Also this week, Kentucky police found 117 starving and diseased dogs during a raid of a local animal shelter.
What explains behavior like this? Is there malicious intent involved, or are these cases of well-meaning people simply getting overwhelmed? Dr. Gary Patronek of the Animal Rescue League of Boston helps explain this unusual behavior.
Q: Why do people hoard animals?
A: We do not fully understand why people hoard animals. It is quite common for animal hoarders to report very dysfunctional childhoods, characterized by inconsistent and unstable parenting if not outright abuse, during which animals were the only stable fixtures.
A dysfunctional childhood is correlated with a disordered attachment style. This can result in a controlling pattern of relationships, such as compulsive caregiving, as an adult. In this behavior pattern, a person selects someone with a sad or difficult life, and provides care obsessively, irrespective of whether the care is wanted or needed. This kind of behavior often characterizes the caregiving style of animal hoarders.
Other forms of control in hoarding include refusal to adopt, rejection of expert opinion about proper animal care, and sometimes the saving of dead bodies. Animals are unable to judge, criticize, or give advice; and can’t disagree with a person’s interpretation of how they feel or what they need. Thus, they are ideally suited as victims to control for a person’s own reasons.
Q: Why do some animal hoarders believe they are actually helping animals?
A: Although they claim to be helping, animal hoarders accumulate large numbers of animals to their detriment. All too often, animal hoarders are unable to provide even minimal standards of care and lack the insight to understand that their actions often result in severe neglect, suffering and death. This debilitating behavior can be devastating to families, put elders and children at risk, and incur significant cost to communities for cleanup or demolition.
Animal hoarding crosses all socioeconomic boundaries, although statistically it is more frequent in older, isolated, socioeconomically disadvantaged women. Hoarders sometimes masquerade as legitimate animal sheltering, sanctuary, or rescue groups. It is important to distinguish them from these legitimate and commendable efforts, which put the needs of animals first.
Q: What might trigger animal hoarding?
A: Animal hoarding in adulthood often begins after triggering events such as a loss of a stabilizing relationship, economic hardship, major health issues or other trauma. Often it results from a complex interaction of disordered attachment, addictive behavior patterns, compulsive caregiving, other problems arising out of early childhood experiences, and adult coping styles after loss or trauma. Therefore, intervention and treatment require a highly individualized approach.
Q: What are the symptoms of an animal hoarder?
A: Hoarders often have major dysfunction in work, social and daily activities, reduced awareness of surroundings, and impaired ability to form close relationships with people. Contrary to what we originally thought, animal hoarding does not seem to be strongly associated with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and it is not yet defined as an independent psychological condition. Clinical evaluations indicate that it is often associated with a wide variety of psychological disorders, including borderline personality disorder.
Q: How does one “treat” hoarding?
A: Some animal hoarders are more likely to respond to a softer, more therapeutically oriented approach. These hoarders have greater insight that the situation is out of control, and may actually find relief at the prospect of outside help and downsizing. At the opposite end of the spectrum are hoarders who are in extreme denial, resist any attempts to intervene and are likely to be hostile.
For additional information on intervention in animal hoarding, please see this report from The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium. To learn more about the Animal Rescue League of Boston, go to their Web site at arlboston.org.
© 2013 MSNBC Interactive. Reprints