The Complex, Tragic Psychology Behind Animal Hoarding

Why is it that there are constant news stories about people who cage or cram hundreds of pets into their homes? Sometimes it's animal cruelty, but it could also be attributed to a specific mental illness.

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May 7 2015, 4:10pm

Image via Pixabay.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

We all know someone who loves cats a bit too much. They have two of them—Molly and Oscar—and they're looking into adopting a third ("Smudge" because of that totally adorable birthmark). Their Tinder and Twitter bios proudly proclaim that they are "a crazy cat lady!" and they have a folder of Lolcats saved to their desktop. But, as of yet, they haven't been mummified in a mound of cat feces.

They haven't, like Terry, a cashier featured on the American TV show Hoarders, stored the bodies of nearly 100 cats in their kitchen freezer. They don't, like Terry, stroke the remains of dead kittens, tearfully apologizing to their corpses about how they didn't want them to die. Why? Because in reality, they're not "crazy cat ladies" (or men) at all.

Photos from Louis* taken at an animal hoarder's house.

Animal hoarding is a real-world psychiatric problem. There are between 900 and 2,000 cases every year in the United States, with an estimated 250,000 animal victims. While cases in America seem more rife, here in the UK, stories of animal hoarders crop up in headlines all the time, like the couple who were found last year to be keeping 15 dogs in cramped conditions in their council house near Wigan.

Despite this, animal hoarding has not yet been recognized in the DSM as an official mental disorder. "It does not appear to be a single, simple disorder," says Dr. Randall Lockwood, a member of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the senior vice president of their Forensic Sciences and Anti-Cruelty projects. "In the past it has been seen as an addictive behavior, and as a manifestation of OCD. We're also now seeing it as an attachment disorder where people have an impaired ability to form relationships with other people and animals fill that void."

This doesn't mean that all animal hoarders are lonely old cat ladies. In fact, Dr. Lockwood calls this a "vast oversimplification." Animal hoarders come in all ages, sexes, orientations, and races, and their pets are just as varied. Whether it's keeping 400 snakes or owning more than 70 animals in a home "knee-deep in feces," these people are out there, both causing and experiencing suffering.

Autumn, a web developer in the US, grew up with an animal-hoarding mother. At one point, her mom owned 20 horses, five sheep, eight dogs, more than 20 cats, and an array of rats, mice, gerbils, birds, chickens, ducks, snakes, and, to round it all off, frogs. "I'm sure there were a few more things. I had a hard time keeping track," she says.

But it's not just about the numbers. You could have 600 cats and not be a hoarder, so long as they are all looked after. By definition, animal hoarding requires a person to be unable to properly house or care for their animals, leading to neglect, disease, and death.

"She has always considered herself an animal lover," says Autumn of her mother. "She definitely thought she was helping the animals, even though it's now clear to me that she was making many of their lives worse. There were many, many untimely deaths of animals. I still struggle with the fact that animals were killed because of neglect. We'd find dead animals weeks after they'd gone missing, hidden under a bed or dresser that hadn't been moved in years."

That someone could love animals but be so immeasurably cruel to them sounds paradoxical. This is due to a failure in recognizing that suffering is actually one of the characteristics of compulsive animal hoarding, says Dr. Lockwood.

"Denial is very common and also something we see with other addictive behaviors," he tells me. "A huge part of animal hoarding is related to how people define themselves, and one of the important things we have to do when confronting hoarders is recognize how important their feeling that they are somehow rescuing or helping animals is."

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Autumn's mother is still somewhat in denial. "I don't think she'll ever realize how bad things were," she says. "I still don't know why she did it, and I'm not sure I ever will. I know her childhood wasn't the greatest, but she never talked about it at length, so I don't know any details."

It's not just Autumn who is confused about why people act like this. Animal hoarding hasn't been firmly linked to any single disorder, and explanations range from delusional disorder, attachment disorder, OCD, zoophilia, addiction, and even dementia. Often, animal hoarders suffer with issues of self-neglect as well as issues linked to child abuse.

"A very common scenario I've encountered is that many hoarders are adult children of alcoholics or other substance abusers," says Dr. Lockwood. "Many of them have their own substance-abuse problems. Hoarders may have some kind of predisposition towards addictive behaviors."

Louis,* a software developer in the United States, experienced the connections between such issues firsthand, when his father's girlfriend turned to alcohol and animal hoarding to cope after her struggle with breast cancer. During this time, she was renting a house from Louis. When she was hospitalized for sepsis, the family discovered the damage she was causing to herself, her animals, and the property.

"In the end there were maybe 14 dogs and five or six cats trapped in that house. My dad found a litter of dead kittens in the freezer, along with one or more dead cats. We found other dead animals when piles of stuff were moved," Louis tells me.

"Feces were everywhere. There was so much that it was fermenting into methane. The stench was incredible. A crew of four people in full hazmat gear with external oxygen tanks still had to take breaks every hour when removing everything."

Louis's photos speak for themselves. He ultimately spent $30,000 to $40,000 repairing the damage to the home, and an extra $50,000 remodeling it. The floors and drywall were removed because of the smell. All the fixtures were too disgusting to keep. But even more troubling was that his father's girlfriend could not accept what she had done.

"She was in full-on denial. When confronted with the pictures she actually told my father that someone else must have gone in there and done this. Until then, my father never understood what it was like to stare delusion in the face. He thinks in the end that she actually believed her own fiction because the horror of what she had done to herself and those animals was too much for her psyche to handle. She completely disassociated from reality."

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Dr. Lockwood says cases like this might be more complex than simple denial, though. "The question I'm often asked is. 'Can't they see or smell the problem?'" At one level, some of the neurophysiology of hoarders suggests that there is difficulty processing the emotional information along with the perceptual information.

"Caring for animals is part of their identity. There are physiological mechanisms to prevent the awareness that they are causing pain and suffering. So in a very simple sense, maybe they do not actually see what's going on."

Louis's story has a clear cut progression. Illness lead to alcoholism, leading his father's girlfriend to lose her job. When she developed diabetes symptoms, including loss of sensation in her hands and feet, she stopped cleaning up after herself. After she got a DUI, she stopped letting her friends into the house and withdrew further from society. Her animals, much like alcohol, were a comfort to her—something that helped her cope.

But what if the animals were the beginning of the story? What if they weren't the outcome, but the cause, of mental illness?

Czech biologist Jaroslav Flegr is just one of the many scientists who have linked the parasite Toxoplasma gondii to mental and behavioral disorders in humans. And where is this parasite commonly found? In cat shit.

"Crazy-cat-lady syndrome" is a term that describes the link between T. gondii and psychiatric conditions. The parasite causes toxoplasmosis, which has been shown to cause altered dopamine levels, which in turn may cause schizophrenia, OCD, ADHD, and mood disorders. Scientists have even linked it to increased risk of suicide. But Dr. Lockwood isn't too convinced. "I don't really put a lot of credence in the idea," he says. "Studies have shown rodents exposed to toxoplasma start food hoarding, but this can't be applied to humans. Animal hoarding has much more to do with definitions of self.

"I've seen no literature that suggests there are higher levels of toxoplasma antibodies in hoarders versus non-hoarders—so it's quite a stretch going from animal studies to thinking that somehow it's influencing human behavior.

"It's far more likely that being a hoarder exposes you to toxoplasma. It's not cause and effect—it's effect and cause." It seems there's no need to send Mr. Tibbles to sleep with the fishes just yet, then.

So if you love your cats and are worried it might spiral out of control, well, there's probably no need to worry. Not just anyone will become a hoarder. "There have to be other underlying components," says Dr. Lockwood. "There's a genetic component to compulsive disorders in general, and hoarding does seem to run in families. There seems to be both biological and developmental components. Often, a very disorganized childhood has impeded a person's ability to form strong and stable relationships with other people."

One thing is for sure, however: Dr. Lockwood says hoarding is on the rise. "The root of a lot of hoarding behavior is anxiety—and we're in anxious times. We live in a time of economic pressures, and these things can potentially exacerbate animal hoarding issues."

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