This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the graduate students in my Psychopathology course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Mental Health.” To that end, each student has to prepare two 1,000ish word posts on a particular class of mental disorders.
Myths & Misconceptions about Animal Hoarding by Scott Sims
Hoarding Disorder, more often referred to simply as “hoarding,” is a relatively new diagnosis in the DSM-5, under the Obsessive-Compulsive & Related Disorder category. Hoarding is vastly misunderstood in society, and represents a danger to both the individuals who hoard and those around them. A subset of hoarding involves the obsessive collection of animals, otherwise known as animal hoarding. This population of individuals is even more misunderstood than the hoarders of inanimate objects – just think of the “crazy cat lady” trope that pervades our social consciousness. This is not a fair assessment of the situation, however. These are individuals who are mentally ill and need the help of competent clinicians to help them recover. People who hoard animals are often demonized as if their intent were to hurt the animals that they collect, when in truth they often cannot control their compulsive hoarding habits and often lack any insight into the damage that their compulsions cause to the animals and themselves.
Common characteristics of an animal hoarder are lack of insight into the suffering of the animals that they obsessively obtain. The outside observer can quickly assess how poorly the animals are treated, but the hoarder lacks the insight to see the same thing. Their homes are often so full of filth, animal feces and urine, and trash that they would be deemed unlivable if inspected. In this short clip, an elderly woman has collected over 130 cats who live in her house. Without the proper veterinary care and lack of psychological intervention, the cats continuously breed, quickly filling up the available living space. The woman seems to be oblivious to the problem, which as discussed before is a hallmark sign of hoarding disorder. She insists on using homeopathic “medicine” instead of proper veterinary care for the young kittens at some point in the video. She makes a statement at around 1:15 in the video that is perfectly indicative of the hoarder’s often delusional mindset: “I am not a hoarder in any way. I just take care of other peoples throwaways.” She cannot properly understand that the health of the cats she has taken in is deteriorating, so what ends up occurring is a tragic case of animal neglect. Without a proper understanding of the compulsive hoarder, however, these individuals may not get the treatment they deserve and desperately need, and instead would be labeled as criminally negligent.
This type of hoarding often occurs due to the distress involved with ridding oneself of possessions that typifies hoarding disorder. Often there is a clinically significant level of distress involved with getting rid of objects, which leads to the compulsive hoarding. Recent studies have shown that the hoarders brain responds very differently from a normal persons when confronted with the decision to rid themselves of something. The areas of the brain involved with decision making, specifically with conflicting information and uncertainty, were excessively when deciding to keep or shred a piece of mail. Excessive activity was also found in the insula, which helps assign emotional relevance to items that we try to appraise. Together, these regions are involved in the hoarding and discarding process.
Typical traits of the animal hoarder suggest very elevated levels of activity in the brain’s insular cortex due to its ties to emotional processing. The animal hoarders often form an emotional attachment to the animals that they collect, which leads to the distress over ridding themselves of the animals. This leads to the significant clutter, sanitation issues, and overall deterioration of the animals that they think they are helping. Interestingly, the study also found that areas of the brain often linked to social disengagement in autism showed very low levels of activation when making decisions about other peoples property. The authors of the study noted that this could help explain the lack of insight into the state of their cluttered home, or in the case of an animal hoarder the deteriorating state of their animals. None of this means that they are bad people. They are surely misunderstood, seriously mentally ill, and public awareness is seriously lacking at this point.
Take this website by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, for instance. While I assume that their intentions are noble, they are using some pretty demonizing language throughout, referring to the act of hoarding as “egregious abuse” and “an act of cruelty”. What seems to be missing from this website is some pretty fundamental operationalizing of the hoarding phenomenon. They say that it is not understood why “acts of cruelty” occur. It occurs because of the significant distress involved in getting rid of possessions and animals for an individual with hoarding disorder (for the record, up to 40% of object hoarders hoard animals as well). It is also not the number of animals that one hoards that constitutes the disorder, but rather the general inability to care for the animals that are collected. For instance, over 800 animals were retrieved from a single home, where another case may have 30 cats living in a garage.
I am not here to defend the actions of animal hoarders because it is obviously not a good thing when you try to cram 700 cats into a 2 bedroom apartment. Animals deserve protection, and if you are going to keep a pet then you should be able to care for it properly. This includes keeping a clean living space, ensuring adequate water and food, and providing the proper medical care. What I am suggesting here is that the compassion that we have for these animals should be displayed for these individuals as well. As so often happens in our society, those with mental illnesses fall by the wayside because it is easier to judge them than to try to understand and help them. Maybe we can take a step towards intervention and treatment of these individuals and a step away from dismissing them as simple animal abusers.