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Animal Hoarding: An Interview with Dr. Jyothi Robertson

Clinician's Brief

Ethics & Human-Animal Bond

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April 2014
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Dr. Jyothi Robertson completed a residency in shelter medicine in 2011 at University of California–Davis and is currently the owner and principal consultant at JVR Shelter Strategies, where she consults with animal shelters on all things shelter medicine related.

What is the definition of an animal hoarder?

The definition of an animal hoarder most commonly used in the field of animal welfare is proposed by Dr. Gary J. Patronek1:

Related Article: Animal Hoarding

[An animal hoarder is] someone who accumulates a large number of animals; fails to provide minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, and veterinary care; and fails to act on the deteriorating condition of the animals (including disease, starvation, and even death) or the environment (severe overcrowding, extremely unsanitary conditions) or the negative effect of the collection on their own health and well-being and on that of other household members.

Please describe some of the demographics of hoarders; are there geographical preferences (ie, states with lax legislation) or other societal considerations for hoarders?

People do not appear to have the intent to become a hoarder from the onset, and hence do not appear to choose their living areas based on animal regulations. However, anecdotally it does appear that after an encounter with law enforcement or animal control, these same people are more likely to move to areas where laws are more favorable to having a large number of animals. To my knowledge, there is no research, however, on this particular aspect of hoarding.

In one study, the majority (76%) of hoarders were female, and 46% were 60 years of age or older. About half of hoarders lived in single-person households.1

Animal hoarders vary in income status, with well-educated professionals as well as low-income individuals becoming hoarders. There are cases of teachers, doctors, lawyers, and social workers becoming involved in animal hoarding. Hoarding tendency can begin at a young age, so the stereotype of the elderly cat woman is not always accurate. It may be that these individuals suffered from a difficult childhood where they were unable to form strong, healthy attachments to humans. Subsequently, they turn to animals to bolster their sense of self-worth.

In the chapter on animal hoarding in Pathological Altruism, Jane N. Nathanson and Gary J. Patronek provided an excellent model of how animal hoarding may occur.2 Further resources can be found on the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium website and in a poster presentation by Drs. Gary J. Patronek and Kenneth Weiss.

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As a veterinary professional, it’s sometimes difficult to assert that a client is guilty of neglect or abuse if they are seeking medical help. Can an individual person still be considered a hoarder if seeking veterinary care?

Yes, someone who seeks veterinary care may still be an animal hoarder.

I have seen hoarders bring their animals to veterinarians for care. These individuals may present only one or two animals, whereas numerous other animals in the home may be ill. In animal hoarding situations, what a veterinarian sees may be just the tip of the iceberg.

It is not the job of the veterinarian to determine if an owner is guilty of neglect or abuse; instead, it is the veterinarian’s duty to report suspicion of abuse, which is different than determining guilt. The veterinarian may only have one piece of the puzzle. Sharing information with authorities may lead to a conviction based on other evidence gathered over time, or it may not lead to a conviction, depending on the investigation.

Although some states do not have mandated reporting laws, the AVMA states the following in their position statement on animal abuse3:

The AVMA recognizes that veterinarians may observe cases of animal abuse or neglect as defined by federal or state laws, or local ordinances. The AVMA considers it the responsibility of the veterinarian to report such cases to appropriate authorities, whether or not reporting is mandated by law. Prompt disclosure of abuse is necessary to protect the health and welfare of animals and people. Veterinarians should be aware that accurate, timely record keeping and documentation of these cases are essential. The AVMA considers it the responsibility of the veterinarian to educate clients regarding humane care and treatment of animals.

What role can the veterinary profession play in addressing this type of abuse?

To take an active role in the community to combat animal hoarding, veterinarians can serve on a local hoarding task force or hoarding alliance. Hoarding task forces can include key individuals from animal control, police enforcement, code compliance, child protective services, and mental health departments, to name a few. Because animal hoarding affects the entire community, a community approach is necessary to solve this problem.

Hoarding behavior is now recognized as a mental disease in the Diagnostic Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). This classification of hoarding as a disease may lead to more research that will help illuminate its causes, and identify ways to help hoarders in the future. Of note, the recidivism rate of hoarding is extremely high, so simply removing animals once does not solve the problem. Veterinarians should be aware of the signs of animal hoarding, including: 

  • Multiple animals presented for diseases typically seen in crowded conditions (excessive external parasites, severe feline URI, ringworm)
  • Multiple animals presented only once without follow-up
  • Client requests medication for other household animals with similar clinical signs but have not been examined

Although many rescue organizations provide a valuable service to the community, it is important that veterinarians be diligent and ask questions before initiating a working partnership with a rescue. There have recently been situations in which hoarders work through rescue organizations. 

Questions to Ask Rescuers

  • General population data:
    • How many pets does the rescue take in annually?
    • How many pets do they adopt out yearly/monthly?
    • What is the average length-of-stay, median length-of-stay, and longest length-of-stay for their population?
  • General business questions:
    • Is the rescue a 501(c)(3)?
    • Do they have a current 990 form?
    • What is their mission statement?
    • Do they have a board of directors? Who sits on the board?
  • Can I visit the organization?
    • The veterinarian should be able to drop by unannounced in legitimate situations.
  • Is the organization foster or shelter based?
    • If shelter based, how many employees are staffed?
    • If foster based, how many foster homes are available?
    • How are members selected for foster?
    • Is there a screening process involved? 
  • Very importantly, what is the adoption process?
    • Many hoarders that have rescue organizations start out adopting animals but eventually make the process so difficult that no one is able to pass their screening. Although they claim to adopt out animals, there may, in fact, be no one that fits the criteria to adopt.

If a client is suspected of being a hoarder, what should a veterinary professional do?

There are many different organizations that can assist with these situations. First, the veterinary practice can contact its local animal control agency and discuss the team’s concerns. This can initially be done anonymously to better understand what resources are available in the practice’s area. If it exists, a hoarding task force can be approached by the veterinarian—it is possible that the hoarder is already on their radar.

Another approach is to contact national organizations (see Resources for Hoarding Assistance) to ask for feedback. Some of these organizations will provide ground support, depending on the situation.

There are also many resources available to veterinarians on the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium website.

References

For global readers, a calculator to convert laboratory values, dosages, and other measurements to SI units can be found here.

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