TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL) – An internet search of animal hoarding returns photos packed with the filthy living conditions often associated with the issue.
Articles detailing “deplorable” living conditions of hoarded animals fill in search results, and pleas from animal shelters looking for help in animal hoarding cases circulate the social media-sphere.
Each year, at least 250,000 animals are affected by animal hoarding, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
That number translates to spikes in local animal shelters as dozens of sick, homeless pets entering county animal shelters at once.
Washington County Animal Shelter Director Tammy Davis said this causes a strain on shelter resources. The animals that come from hoarding situations, she said, are usually in need of medical care, and the shelter doesn’t always have room for dozens of animals from hoarding cases.
“I think (animal hoarding) is a lot more common than people realize,” she said. “It seems like we have a hoarding situation as often as every other month.”
Davis said tips from neighbors yield the welfare checks that unveil animal hoarding situations, which lead to the shelter’s possession of the animals. From there, she said, law enforcement takes over to handle any relevant charges.
But who are the hoarders, and what happens to them after law enforcement intervenes?
Born from the heart
Dr. Elizabeth Strand is a licensed social worker and the founder of the University of Tennessee’s Veterinary Social Work program.
Animal hoarding, she said, usually has its roots in compassion.
“Oftentimes in the heart of the animal hoarder, they are very protective of the animals,” Strand said. “It seems a little bit nonsensical because if you go and look at an animal hoarding environment, many people who are in animal welfare find it very upsetting because the animals are not in good condition.”
The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium developed criteria for animal hoarding as “an accumulation of an unusually large number of animals and failure to provide minimal care standards.”
Strand said hoarders can be grouped into different types. An overwhelmed caregiver, for example, could be someone who couldn’t get their pet spayed, and got overwhelmed in a few breeding cycles.
Strand said that most of the time, animal hoarders don’t see that they aren’t providing for their pets.
For the hoarder, it can be hard for them to see when things have gotten out of hand, Davis and Strand agreed, even in cases where the animals are starving, covered in feces or dying.
“From the perspective of the animal hoarder, especially the overwhelmed caregiver, to keep the animals in their home and not let them go to the shelter or somewhere where they might be homeless, or worse off, euthanized, is the most compassionate thing to do,” Strand explained.
Roots in trauma
Strand said that hoarding disorder used to fall under the obsessive-compulsive disorder umbrella when it came to diagnosing it as a mental health disorder.
The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health classifies animal hoarding as its own unique mental health issue.
She said research and anecdotal evidence said the beginnings of a hoarding disorder can be traced back to childhood.
“What I’ve observed and what I’ve read is you can have early childhood trauma, and the life of that person trucks along pretty well, and then if there’s a trauma that happens in mid-life, then it triggers the hoarding behavior,” she said.
Strand said most animal hoarders are older women, and the AADA says 70 percent of animal hoarders that come to the attention of authorities are women who are single, widowed or divorced.
It’s the only area of animal abuse where women outpace men, Strand said.
“Females are trained, and I think, have some physical and hormonal qualities that make us a little more nurturing,” Strand said, further explaining that those nurturing qualities could craft the compassionate lens through which hoarders see their problems.
Treating the hoarder
Without proper treatment, Strand said research suggests there is a 100 percent chance that hoarders will relapse and continue their behavior.
She said treatment should include a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy and medication.
Davis said she isn’t sure what happens to animal hoarders once animal control officers get the animals out of the home.
“At that point, depending on the situation with the person, the local authorities would take care of that,” she said. “We’re just concerned with the animals’ well-being.”
Under Johnson City law, pet owners must provide for their animals under threat of animal abuse charges.
Tennessee state law allows for judges to order mental health screenings in animal cruelty cases, Strand said, but care should be ongoing.
“In the best-case scenario, the process is one in which it’s a collaborative effort between the hoarder, mental health and law enforcement to remedy the problem,” she said. “It’s a supportive, ongoing relationship, and it’s not a one-and-done kind of thing, ideally.”
Publicized stories of animal abuse usually end with dozens of animals being vacated from the premises at once, but Strand said there might be a better approach.
She suggested a more “staged” approach to animal hoarding situations in which animal welfare officers build a relationship with the hoarder and slowly remove the animals from the home while allowing the hoarder to keep a few of the animals.
She said this method could help recidivism rates in animal hoarders.
“From a social worker’s perspective, I think this is a great strategy for reducing trauma of loss when all the animals are all the sudden gone,” she said.
Davis said part of the problem with hoarding is that those affected either don’t know when to ask for help or feel too much shame to ask for help.
“The goal is not necessarily to charge that person with animal cruelty or animal neglect, the goal is to get that person help and to get the animals help,” she said.