Pet hoarding: Misunderstood disease

Posted: Sunday, September 07, 2003

Companion animal hoarding is an ongoing problem in every state, and Alaska is no exception. We've all heard the horrific stories.

Stories like the Nikiski couple, Athena Lethcoe-Harman and Johnathan Harman, convicted earlier this year of transporting 166 collies in an inhumane manner and in unacceptable conditions in a 40-foot trailer. The dogs were reported to be lying in a four-inch thick soup of urine and feces and suffering from extreme dehydration and malnutrition. Then there's the Sterling woman convicted last month of animal cruelty for severely neglecting 66 bouviers and Kerry blue terriers.

After reading these stories in the newspaper or hearing them on the evening news, most people are left dumbfounded, wondering what the rational of the people responsible for these situations could possible be.

What makes it even harder to understand is how the people charged usually profess to love the animals they were neglecting. How can this possibly be?

What causes individuals to hoard animals is not well understood but this compulsive collecting of animals is starting to be considered by many psychologists as an under-recognized mental health problem.

The Tufts University Web site defines an animal hoarder as someone who accumulates a large number of animals, overwhelming that person's ability to provide even minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation and veterinary care; fails to acknowledge the deteriorating condition of the animals (including disease, starvation and even death) and household environment (severe overcrowding or very unsanitary conditions); and fails to recognize the negative effect of the collection on his or her own health and wellbeing, and that of other people in the household.

Dr. Gary Patronek, director of the Tufts University Center for Animals and Public Policy, has recently released a profile of animal hoarders in a public health report based on his many years of research on the subject.

In the report, Patronek states that 76 percent of animal hoarders are females, 46 percent are 60 years of age or older, most are unmarried and more than half live alone.

Furthermore, in 69 percent of the cases, animal feces and urine accumulated in living areas. In more than 25 percent of the cases, the hoarder's bed was soiled with feces or urine.

Dead or sick animals were discovered in 80 percent of reported cases and in 60 percent of the cases, hoarders did not acknowledge the problem. Although the psychological studies of animal hoarding are still in their infancy, there are measures that can be taken to prevent or intervene with the problem.

Once an animal hoarder is identified (see story below), local ordinances on public health, building and sanitation codes, animal control laws and elder and child abuse laws can all be called upon to intervene in the situation.

Anyone suspected of animal hoarding should be reported to the appropriate authorities to protect the health and wellfare of the people and animals involved.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. He has worked with wildlife and domestic animals for more than 10 years as a veterinary technician, a zoo keeper, and most recently as a zoologist for the Wildlife Conser-vation Society. He welcomes any pet-related questions or story ideas, but please none of a veterinary nature. Ideas and questions can be sent to his attention by e-mail at

Tips for spotting hoarders:

Veterinarians are often the first people to recognize a problem. They should be able to identify the following warning signs of animal hoarding:

A constantly changing parade of pets, most seen once and not again.

Visits for problems not usually seen in good preventative health care, such as trauma or infectious disease.

Rarely seeing the same animal for diseases of old age such as cancer or heart disease.

May travel great distances to the practice, come at odd hours and use multiple veterinarians so as not to tip them off about the number of animals.

May seek heroic and futile care for animals they have recently found.

Perfuming or bathing animals prior to a visit to conceal odor.

Bringing in a relatively presentable animal in an attempt to get medication for more seriously ill animals at home and trying to persuade the veterinarian to provide medication or refills without seeing the animals.

Being unwilling or unable to say how many animals they have.

Claiming to have just found or rescued an animal in obviously deplorable conditions, although the condition of the animal including strong odor or urine, overgrown nails and muscle atrophy may be more indicative of confinement in filthy conditions than wandering the streets.

An interest in rescuing even more animals, including checking the office bulletin board and questioning other clients.

Source: Dr. Gary Patronek, Hoar-ding of Animals Research Consortium, Tufts University.

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