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I am the first person to admit that, from time to time, I have probably had more dogs in my home than the typical person has, simply because I have a great deal of difficulty saying “No” when someone tells me about a dog that desperately needs a home. Some of the best dogs I’ve ever had have been “freebies,” in fact. However, five is the most dogs I’ve ever had at one time, so I don’t think that exactly qualifies me as a “crazy dog person.” If I’d had 25 dogs instead of five, of course, you might reasonably question my mental stability.
So, where is the cut-off between someone who is simply dog-obsessed, and a person who is a hoarder? The ASPCA’s position on hoarding is that there is no specific number, but that you slip over into hoarding when you have more animals than you can reasonably care for, and at the same time you deny that you’re in out of your depth.
Hoarders are most likely mentally ill to one degree or another. They are not deliberately cruel – in fact, they love their animals very much, and may even believe, despite their circumstances, that they are providing proper care. They keep an unusual number of dogs, and may try to justify their behavior by claiming that they are breeders. Of course breeders do have more dogs than most of us, but that’s because dogs are the cornerstone of their business. A breeder’s dogs will also be in good condition, and there will not be more animals than is practical for the space available.
Basically, hoarders have two characteristics. According to Dr. Gary Patronek of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University, hoarders have a compulsive need to acquire animals, along with an inability to perceive that their animals are suffering. Hoarding is a form of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and may be accompanied by other symptoms of OCD. Often, addiction and hoarding also go hand in hand.
The actual number of dogs is not all that relevant – it’s the behavior involved. What is at issue is the inability of the owner to take proper care of the dogs, and the refusal to admit that the animals are in poor health and the home is toxic. Even when there are so many dogs that it becomes impossible to maintain a decent level of sanitation, properly nourish them all, and provide veterinary care, even when the hoarder’s own health has become compromised, and even when disease, starvation and death occur, hoarders will cling to the belief that they are providing a good standard of care for their dogs.
Hoarders are overwhelmingly attached to their dogs. They may also be very resistant to efforts by the ASPCA to help them achieve a manageable level when it comes to the number of dogs in the home. This means, unfortunately, that often law enforcement has to become involved.
Animal hoarders are subject to prosecution if they fail to provide a proper level of care for their animals. In most states, this means that each animal must have access to enough food and water to ensure good health, and that medical care must be sought when necessary. Animals must also be housed in a manner that does not result in harm – in other words, they must not be over-crowded, and must be protected from the elements.
In most states, failure of care is considered to be an act of omission, not commission, and, as such, is a misdemeanor. Repeated offenses can result in the offender being charged with a higher level of misdemeanor, which would carry a higher penalty. Some states, though (New Hampshire and California, for instance), consider failing to provide an animal with food, drink, and shelter to be a felony. The offender may face criminal charges at the State Attorney’s discretion.
Penalties for animal neglect can include fines, jail time, and/or the forfeiture of the animal. The offender may also be held liable for the costs of housing, feeding, and obtaining veterinary care for seized animals. In some instances, the court may also order that the hoarder undergo psychological counselling. Prosecutors may request that the offender be prohibited from keeping animals in the future, or at least for a certain period of time. One such example is ALDF v. Conyers, a case in which more than 100 dogs were seized. The dogs were in horrible condition. One, in fact, had been caged in the basement of the home, and was unable to stand. Because of repeated urination and defecation, his skin was scalded. His tongue was also sticking out of his mouth because his jaw had so badly deteriorated. The ALDF (Animal Legal Defense Fund) requested and received a ban on the defendants’ owning any animals for a period of 10 years.
Many animal rights advocates believe that the state laws don’t go nearly far enough. Very few states actually consider animal cruelty to be a felony, and the penalties may be no harsher for multiple cases of animal neglect than for a single case. Often, the charge is a single count of animal cruelty – in other words, whether someone has neglected or starved just one dog, or 100 dogs, there may be only one count against them. Judges are reluctant to see multiple charges, because several counts end up “clogging” the system, and also because it is difficult to prove each individual charge.So, cases involving a single count are processed faster, and often result in a conviction, but they do nothing to highlight the seriousness of multiple instances of cruelty.
As of the time of writing, only Hawaii and Illinois have laws that specifically relate to animal hoarding.
The Illinois Humane Care for Animals Act includes a definition of animal hoarders, and mandates psychological counselling for offenders. A first offense is a misdemeanor, and subsequent offenses can be prosecuted as a Class 4 felony. Hoarding alone is not a violation of the Act, though – harm must be proven.
Hawaii, however, specifically prohibits hoarding, and sets a specific number – any more than 15 animals (dogs and cats only are considered; there are no provisions for birds or reptiles) constitutes hoarding if the animals are not properly cared for, and can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor or as a criminal offense. This may not sound all that different from the laws in other states, but what it means is that prosecutors can charge hoarders in Hawaii with a single count that actually covers all the animals in the hoarder’s possession. The courts are not burdened by multiple charges, and hoarders do not get away with having only one charge leveled against them when, in fact, several animals have been harmed. Unlike Illinois, though, Hawaii does not mandate psychological counselling. And it does not provide for a ban on future ownership of animals.
Even when states do not have any specific laws on animal hoarding, there can be municipal ordinances. For instance, in Alto, Georgia, hoarding is specifically prohibited. Anyone convicted of hoarding in Alto is prohibited for owning animals for a period of one year, and can be punished by means of a $1,000 fine and/or six months of jail time.
In some municipalities, people are limited as to how many pets they can keep. Sometimes, this is in an effort to prevent hoarding. The problem with this, though, is that it does not take into consideration the level of care being provided to the animals. After all, it is certainly possible for people to take care of many dogs at once, and an arbitrary number does nothing to forestall cruelty. It’s also a slippery slope. I’ve talked about breed bans in The Truth About Dog Bites and Should You Get a License for Your Dog, and I do worry that when governments at any level start telling citizens how many dogs they can have, breed bans may be the next step.
Gary Patronek maintains that limiting the number of animals one may own is bound to be opposed by breeders, rescue groups, and other organizations concerned with animal welfare. I agree with him. Besides, hoarders are not likely to be all that concerned about the law – they’ll just keep their dogs inside, in even worse conditions than if they were visible, rather than be parted from their pets.
It’s not all bad news, though. Even in municipalities where there are limits on how many pets one can own, it is often possible to obtain a permit to keep multiple animals. Of course, it’s not all good news, either, because that means that hoarders can claim to be breeders, and get a multiple pet exemption.
The only way to stop hoarding is to prosecute, and this, as we shall see shortly, can be problematic.
As previously stated, prosecuting hoarders can be problematic. In most states, individual charges will not be laid because of the burden on the system. Much of the time, rather than prosecute, officials will offer a plea bargain in exchange for the animals being turned over. The trouble with this is that hoarders don’t usually change their ways, and in the absence of mandatory psychological counselling, they don’t get the help they need to change, supposing they actually want to. For every single charge that is brought, prosecutors must offer proof of the harm done. So, they go with the one charge they know they can prove, the system isn’t burdened, and the offender gets off relatively lightly. Then they just go back to hoarding.
The laws are woefully lacking, psychological help for hoarders virtually non-existent, and the results of hoarding horrific. Let’s talk more about those results.
Animal hoarding doesn’t just affect the animals involved. It also threatens people living in the home where hoarding is taking place, and their neighbors.
Hoarding is, indisputably, animal cruelty, whether it is intentional or not. Hoarders are not often able to provide basic care for their dogs, and the result is disease at best, and death at worst. Even after the dogs have been rescued, the effects of hoarding can have long-term effects. Many rescued dogs are malnourished and dehydrated,and may also be emotionally damaged because of the need to compete against other dogs for whatever food is available.
At its most horrific, animal rescuers have entered homes to find it littered with corpses in various stages of decay, some even cannibalized by other starving dogs. Veterinary attention is also virtually non-existent when large numbers of dogs are crowded, and disease proliferates. Feces and urine accumulate because of the sheer impossibility of attending to the elimination needs of so many animals. Behavioral issues are also rampant.
Hoarders, of course, fear losing their animals, so they don’t ask for help. They continue to live in horribly unsanitary conditions, and convince themselves that their dogs are not sick, not starving, and do not need veterinary care (which they likely cannot afford in any case). The dogs don’t get even the bare minimum of care that they need; they are filthy, parasite-infested, and living in their own waste. The hoarders continue to try to convince themselves that nothing is wrong.
By the time hoarded dogs are rescued, there is often no alternative other than euthanasia. The animals are so ill that they will not respond to veterinary treatment, and they are so traumatized that they are highly unlikely to be adoptable. Rehabilitation is hardly ever an option, so the animals that the hoarder actually loved end up being put to sleep.
Hoarders are not just too unable to care for their dogs; they are also incapable of taking care of themselves, or any humans who may live with them. The lack of sanitation in the home can lead to any number of human health problems, including respiratory issues, parasite infection, and general lack of hygiene. Often the floors, and even the countertops, of homes where hoarding has taken place, are covered in layers of trash and feces that are inches deep. Air quality suffers, often to the point where rescuers need to wear protective clothing and breathing apparatus in order to remove the animals from the home. The ammonia level in hoarding homes can be horrific, even after the home is aired out.
As you might expect, the overwhelming amount of animal waste also makes it virtually impossible to prepare and store food safely. Often, insects and rodents find this a very pleasing environment, and this just makes matters that much worse. The infestations can also spread to adjacent homes and other buildings.
To make matters worse, it’s not always just animals that are being hoarded. Hoarders will also likely keep all manner of things, including stacks of newspapers, clothing, and other items. This makes an overcrowded home even worse, exacerbates the level of squalor, impedes ordinary movement, and again, makes it virtually impossible to prepare food safely and cleanly.
Serious hoarders also frequently fail to pay their utility bills because every penny they have has to go to feeding their dogs (who are still not getting enough to eat), leading to a lack of electricity and running water. Toilets begin to overflow. Basic hygiene is neglected. Hoarders may also resort to very dangerous methods of heating their homes when their electricity is cut off, putting everyone in the home in danger.
You might not think that someone who is so invested in their dogs could be intentionally cruel to any living creature, but this often happens. They don’t just neglect themselves – they neglect their children, and elderly people in the home. Sometimes, the stress of trying to look after so many dogs, coupled with the effort that it takes to maintain the delusion that nothing is wrong, spills over into actual abuse. The hoarder lashes out at children and aging parents in addition to being unable to provide a suitable standard of care for them. So hoarding doesn’t just harm the hoarder and his or her animals, it adversely affects everyone in the household.
Obviously, you don’t need me to tell you that dog hoarders are mentally ill. It’s obvious. Although it’s not a specific, diagnosable mental illness in and of itself, most experts agree that hoarding is evidence of a psychological disorder, or more than one disorder. As previously mentioned, it is probably a variation on OCD, but it can also be an indication of an attachment disorder (an abnormal attachment to animals or an inability to bond with humans), and can also have its roots in dementia (we’ve all heard of the “crazy cat lady”), and even sometimes in addiction. There is no direct evidence that proves the link between hoarding and any other specific mental disorder, but enough anecdotal evidence that would seem to strongly suggest a link.
Of course, hoarders are delusional. They are out of touch with any kind of reality as we know it, and they have no insight into the harm that they are doing to their animals. They continue to insist that nothing is wrong. They may even believe that they are “dog whisperers” who have an almost supernatural ability to communicate with their dogs – and anyone who tries to tell them otherwise is attempting to cause harm to them and their dogs.
Childhood trauma may also be a factor in hoarding behavior. Children who have been abused frequently have difficult forming relationships with humans, so they rely on animals for love and companionship. Many animal hoarders report that they were abused as children, so this is the basis for the theory that animal hoarding may go hand in hand with attachment disorder.
Most likely, though, it’s OCD. Often, OCD sufferers feel an overwhelming need to take certain actions to be highly responsible for something in their lives. A desire to protect animals spirals out of control, and the hoarder tries to take on responsibilities that are well beyond anyone’s reasonable ability. They feel compelled to acquire animals, and the compulsion does not go away even when it should be obvious to any reasonable person that it is going to be impossible to care for so many. It’s not rational, and it’s not sensible, but for the hoarder, it is very deniable.
Obviously, not everyone who has a lot of dogs is a hoarder. But if you think you know of an instance of hoarding, you can help. First of all, you can contact your local ASPCA or Humane Society. They can investigate the situation, and might even be able to get the hoarder the help they need.
If the situation has progressed to the point where dogs are in danger, don’t hesitate. Again, call the ASPCA or Humane Society, or even the police.
If the hoarder is elderly, dementia could be at the root of the hoarding behavior, in which case Adult Protective Services may be able to provide help.
If you know the hoarder personally, there is nothing wrong with talking to him or her, and offering reassurance that help is available. Sometimes, a situation just gets out of control, and well-meaning seniors are hesitant to seek assistance out of fear that their beloved animals will be taken and put to sleep. Often, though, it can be a simple matter of spaying and neutering the animals, and making sure that they have proper veterinary care. You can also offer to help walk the dogs, and maybe even bring over a bag of dog food from time to time. You might offer to help find a home for some of the dogs if the elderly person is overwhelmed trying to care for all of them.
Dog hoarding is a serious problem. Sometimes, hoarders are very resistant to getting help, and the only way to ensure the health and well-being of the dogs is to have them seized. Sometimes, the hoarder has to be prosecuted, if only as a deterrent to others who may engage in this harmful behavior. It is important, though, to understand the issues that lead to hoarding. Often, people do terrible things for what they think are very good reasons, and much of the time, we need to treat hoarders as compassionately as we treat our dogs. Compulsory psychological help should be mandatory in all states, not just Illinois. And we all need to be alert to the problem of hoarding.
So, how many dogs is too many? It’s simply one more than you can house, feed, and offer medical care to without causing unnecessary suffering. I know my limit. Hoarders, sadly, don’t, and that’s something that we should all be concerned about.
I hope that one day, I will never have to pick up a newspaper or turn on the television and be confronted with a horrific story of dogs that have become so ill that they had to be put down, or even died, due to hoarding. And that no one will ever feel that they can’t ask for help, and be treated kindly. I want that for dogs, hoarders, and all of us who desire nothing more than a better world for the animals we love.