“Animal hoarding” may provide comfort to people who struggle to form relationships

Consistent with the cultural archetype of a “cat lady”, two thirds of the animal hoarders were women

By Alex Fradera

The latest version of psychiatry’s principal diagnostic manual (the DSM-V) defines Hoarding Disorder as a psychopathology where the collection of items significantly impacts the person’s functioning, as they find it difficult and indeed painful to discard the items, creating congestion within the home and encouraging poor hygiene and accidents. However not only objects, but also living things can be collected pathologically, popularly enshrined in the notion of a “cat lady”. According to the psychiatric manual, this is just a special case of hoarding. But a team of psychologists from the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul has investigated people who hoard animals, and in their new paper in Psychiatry Research they make the case that it ought to be considered a distinct illness.

Elisa Arrienti Ferreira and her colleagues investigated animal hoarding cases in the city of Porto Alegre, following up a survey conducted by the city’s Secretariat for Animal Rights. Of 75 potential cases, they managed to reach residents in 48 dwellings, and from those, found 33 who agreed to participate and fit the diagnostic criteria for the animal subtype of hoarding. The team arrived with vets to check the conditions of animals, they also surveyed the conditions of the residence and interviewed the animal hoarders about their lives.

The conditions in which these people lived might be hard to take in: there were a total of 1,357 animals – “composed of 915 dogs, 382 cats, and 50 ducks” – with an average of 41 per hoarder. Only 22 per cent ensured their animals were neutered, and the sanitary and health conditions were often very poor. The researchers also report that “dramatic situations such as violent fights for territory, extreme malnutrition, cannibalism, caged animals injured and untreated, were observed in most of the houses visited.”

Two-thirds of the hoarders were elderly, but they’d all begun accumulating animals earlier in their lives. Ferreira’s team speculate that it’s only later in life when the burden of animal collection becomes most apparent, as the number proliferate due to the individual’s reluctance to give animals away. Two-thirds of animal hoarders were women, and most lived alone, consistent with the sense that the animals provided companionship and comfort to people who otherwise struggle to form relationships.

There are a two main reasons why Ferreira’s team advocate for this to be considered as separate from standard hoarding. First, some of the technical definition of hoarding just seems off: take the concept of “congestion”, which makes sense in a house piled precariously high with magazines or wine bottles, but doesn’t really apply to mobile creatures. Second, the researchers note that their sample also seemed to show more self-awareness than is associated with object hoarding, many admitting to difficulties that resulted from their compulsion, and recognising that it took a toll on their quality of life.

If they see the problem, why don’t the animal hoarders do something about it? Well, it’s harder to rid yourself of an animal than trash, both logistically and emotionally. The presence of care-bonding with living things transforms the dynamic, and would suggest that the tactics appropriate for managing an item-hoarder may simply not apply in these cases. The researchers conclude that distinguishing animal hoarding as its own mental health condition can lead to investment into interventions that address a disorder that “causes serious damage to the environment, suffering for individuals, their families, and the animals.”

Animal Hoarding Disorder: A new psychopathology?

Image: Bansky cat ladies, via piX dust/Flickr

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

4 thoughts on ““Animal hoarding” may provide comfort to people who struggle to form relationships”

  1. I have known many hoarders of things, children and pets. Several features about hoarders and what hey say about their hoarding stand out for me. One, “things don’t hurt you like people do”. Two, pets/ animals have stable personalities, they are friends or child substitutes that are “always there for you when people let you down” and three, “things, children and pets are under the control of the hoarder”. I would tend to agree with the study conclusion, even though it is hardly a new idea.

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