Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Loving them to death: Animal hoarding disorder

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

Animal hoarding of rabbits. Photo by Stefan Körner and uploaded by Uwe Gille to Wikimedia. CC BY-SA 3.0

“The Lord said to Noah… ‘Take with you seven pairs of every kind of clean animal…and one pair of every unclean animal…and also seven pairs of every kind of bird.’”
– Genesis 7, in the Old Testament

Between 2–6 % of people are hoarders.1 They excessively acquire unneeded items, often without space to store them. They have difficulty parting with these possessions. The objects hoarded may be old newspapers, junk mail, food, trash, cigarette butts, or nearly anything else. Hoarding may start in childhood. By age twenty-one, 70% of hoarders are recognized. Much hoarding behavior starts after a traumatic life event. There is often a family history of the disorder. Hoarding disorder is not the same as obsessive-compulsive disorder, according to the American Psychiatric Association. The consequences of object hoarding are blocked escape exits, fire hazards, injury (or death) from piled-high objects falling, and the attracting of vermin.

Up to 40% of object hoarders are also animal hoarders.2 The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals defines animal hoarding3 as “housing more animals than [one] can adequately and appropriately care for.” This means not providing even minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, and veterinary care. Such a situation is often identified by an unusual number of pet (or farm) animals. The owner may not know how many animals they have. Minimal standards are not met; the house is deteriorated; the owner is attached to the animals. The lodging smells bad. Feces, urine, and vomitus are evident. The animals are emaciated and lethargic, with fleas and vermin in abondance. Between 3,000–6,000 cases of animal hoarding are discovered annually in the US.4,5 Cases of animal hoarding have also been seen in Italy, Spain, Serbia, Czechia, the UK, Canada, Australia, Brazil, and Singapore.6 Most of the animals hoarded are cats or dogs, or a combination of both.7 Horses, other farm animals, birds, reptiles (common and exotic), and rodents are also the victims of hoarding. On average, 39–47 animals are hoarded in individual cases, although sometimes hundreds of animals are found with a hoarder. The phenomenon was first described in 1981 based on 31 cases in New York City, and the term “animal hoarding” was first used in 1996 by the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium.8

Animals may be found in homes, trailers, cars, buses, boats, moving trucks, and storage units. Sometimes dead animals or their skeletons, are also found, in freezers, boxes, or out in the open.

Most animal hoarders (67–76 %) are women9,10; unmarried, divorced, or widowed; and usually about 60 years old. They are often in economically-straitened circumstances, and socially isolated, although this is not always the case. A psychiatrist in Louisiana, US, was convicted of 123 counts of animal cruelty for the 123 neglected horses and dogs on her property.11

Animal hoarders are divided into three types.12 Type 1 is the “overwhelmed caregiver.” She considers the animals as “family members.” She is socially isolated and her self-esteem is linked to her role as a caregiver. Her problems with animal hoarding are triggered by a “change in circumstances”—that is, a divorce, a death in the family, or the loss of a job. A famous example of this type occurred in Sweden in the early 2000s. A woman who used to capture and bring sick or injured swans to a rescue center started keeping the swans in her tiny 250 square foot apartment when the rescue center closed. When animal protection agents entered this overwhelmed caregiver’s apartment, they found eleven starving, dirty swans, four of which were euthanized because of their condition.13 Overwhelmed caregivers make up most animal hoarders.14

Animal “rescuers”15 make up 20% of animal hoarders. They feel that they are the only ones who can provide care for the animals. They are active in their acquisition of animals— searching for newspaper ads offering free animals. About 10% of animal hoarders are the third type, “exploiters.” They are considered manipulators, without guilt or empathy, and are indifferent to the harm they cause.16 They acquire animals to serve their own needs.17 If one looks at the past history of animal hoarders in general, one sees often a personal history of abuse, neglect, or abandonment.18 Many diagnoses have been given to animal hoarders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, personality disorder, alcoholism, anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, dementia, and various cognitive defects.19

In 15% of animal hoarding cases, dependent adults or minor children are also at risk. When an animal protection officer removed an emaciated dog from one home, the children in the home “begged her to take them with her.”20

The animals are starved, often caged so they can barely move, are covered with fleas, and infected with ear mites. They are not sterilized, and reproduce repeatedly. They fight21 and become cannibals, even eating their own newborns. The quantity of urine in the home, and thereby the level of ammonia, is often so elevated that animal rescue workers must wear gas masks to enter the home.Two animal welfare workers had asthma attacks on entering a hoarder’s house.22

Feeding and boarding an animal takes a minimum of fifteen minutes per day (nine minutes for bathing, six for feeding). If one has ten animals, that consumes 2.5 hours per day.23 Animal hoarders in the US frequently have no functioning plumbing or electricity,24 and their homes are filthy.25 They are at risk for cat-scratch disease and toxoplasmosis,26 as well as anemia from repeated flea bites.

Animal hoarding, usually considered to be animal neglect, is a misdemeanor in all but four US states, where it is a felony.27


  1. “Hoarding disorder.” Wikipedia.
  2. Karen Cassidy. “Animal hoarding.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America, September 2016.
  3. American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). “Animal hoarding.” 2023. https://www.aspca.org/helping-people-pets/animal-hoarding
  4. Arnold Arluke and Gary Patronek. “Animal hoarding.” In Mary Brewster and Cassandra Reyes (eds), Animal Cruelty: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Understanding, 3rd ed, Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press, 2016.
  5. Gary Patronek. “Animal hoarding: Its roots and recognition.” dvm360, August 1, 2006. https://www.dvm360.com/view/animal-hoarding-its-roots-and-recognition
  6. Ingvar Svanberg and Arnold Arluke. “The Swedish swan lady: Reaction to an apparent animal hoarding case.” Society and Animals, 24(1), 2016.
  7. Victoria Haynes. “Detailed discussion of animal hoarding.” Animal Legal and Historic Center, Michigan State University College of Law, 2010. https://www.animallaw.info/article/detailed-discussion-animal-hoarding
  8. Patronek, “Animal hoarding.”
  9. Lisa Avery. “From helping to hoarding to hurting: When the acts of ‘good Samaritans’ become felony animal cruelty.” Valpariso University Law Review, 815, 2005. https://scholar.valpo.edu/vulr/vol39/iss4/2/
  10. Randy Frost. “People who hoard animals.” Psychiatric Times, 17 (4), 2000.
  11. Avery, “From helping.”
  12. Becky Johnson. “Animal hoarding: Beyond the crazy cat lady,” J Agricultural and Food Info, 9(4), 2008.
  13. Svanberg and Arluke. “The Swedish swan lady.”
  14. Barbara Stumpf et al. “Animal hoarding: A systematic review,” Brazilian J Psychiatry, August 21, 2023. https://www.bjp.org.br/details/2399/en-US/animal-hoarding–a-systematic-review
  15. Johnson, “Animal hoarding.”
  16. Johnson, “Animal hoarding.”
  17. Patronek, “Animal hoarding.”
  18. Gary Patronek and Jane Nathanson. “A theoretical perspective to inform assessment and treatment strategies for animal hoarders.” Clinical Psychology Review, 29, 2009.
  19. Lucia de Fatima Henriques et al. “Compulsive hoarding: An integrative review of the potential risks of spread of vector-borne and other zoonotic diseases.” Boletim do Instituto de Saúde. researchgate.net/profile/Tereza_Toma/publication/339209799_BIS_Qualitative_evidence_synthesis/links/5e4414e992851c7f7f3ebfe/BIS_Qualitiative_evidence_synthesis
  20. Avery, “From helping.”
  21. ASPCA, “Animal hoarding.”
  22. Emma Ockenden et al. “Animal hoarding in Victoria, Australia: An exploratory study.” Anthrozoös, 27(1), 2014.
  23. Zaida Nadal et al. “Noah’s syndrome: Systematic review of animal hoarding.” Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin, 10(1), 2022.
  24. Ockenden et al, “Animal hoarding.”
  25. Avery, ”From helping.”
  26. Avery, ”From helping.”
  27. Avery, ”From helping.”

HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

Spring 2024



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