Pets galore: study into animal hoarding

Animal hoarding in Australia is a tragedy for the animals involved, with more than 70 per cent of rescued animals having to be euthanised.

It is also a significant welfare issue for hoarders, many of whom have serious mental health problems – and can impact on neighbours and the wider community.

Now a new study, the first of its kind in Australia, reports that a lot of these conditions can, and should be prevented. 

Emma Ockenden, a veterinary nurse, carried out the research as an honours student in La Trobe University’s Department of Agricultural Sciences. She said the results of the study could help identify groups at risk to improve prevention of, and intervention in, animal hoarding cases.

Need for better records and service integration

They also call for systematic recording of animal hoarding, with a more integrated approach by all agencies. This should include the involvement of health care professional and animal welfare organisations, she said.

‘We only scratched the surface of the problem in our study, as we identified many other cases but couldn’t include them due to lack of recorded information.’

Miss Ockenden said Australian laws also made dealing with animal hoarders difficult. ‘No criminal conviction can be made where mental impairment is involved - therefore no banning orders.’

The report of the study has just been published in the latest edition of Anthrozoos, a multidisciplinary peer-reviewed scientific journal that deals with research into interactions between people and animals.

‘Very little is known about animal hoarding in Australia,’ Miss Ockenden said. ‘Our study examined 22 recent cases. All agencies spoken to called for greater involvement and support from human mental health services to address the root of the problem.’

She said the study found animals subject to hoarding suffered severe behavioural problems, parasite infection, disease and injury. Most were unable to be rehomed after they were seized and had to be destroyed.

Hoarders often lived in destitute conditions, frequently without electricity and plumbing, due to pathological self-neglect.

‘Their living conditions were so poor in most instances that case workers were only able to enter the premises for a few minutes at a time due to dangerously high levels of ammonia.’

While hoarders seemed oblivious to the detrimental conditions imposed on the animals, it also harmed them, she said – with one suffering from a collapsed lung.

Hoarding also carried risks of fire danger and offensive smells for neighbours. Clean-up costs and subsequent animal care can run into thousands of dollars.

Miss Ockenden said in one case more than 150 cats were seized and euthanised. Another case involved a non-practising vet who had hoarded a large number of malnourished horses. In a third case the hoarder was wealthy enough to pay thousands of dollars to hide their favourite cats in cat boarding facilities so they would not be seized. 

‘While seizing the animals does eliminate the problem temporarily, it is not dealing with the underlying cause of the issue and so hoarders tend to repeat their behaviours,’ she said. 

Profile of hoarders – and the hoarded

The study found that the most commonly hoarded species were cats, in about 50 per cent of cases, followed by dogs, almost 23 per cent.  

Other species included rabbits, guinea pigs, native wildlife, farm animals, reptiles, birds, horses, ponies, donkeys – even monkeys. Most of these cases were in rural areas, the largest involving 170 animals.

The most common way animals were obtained was through uncontrolled breeding, followed by collecting strays; sourcing them from internet sites and newspaper ads; or even buying them.

According to the study, the ‘average’ hoarder in Victoria was a middle-aged to elderly woman: 45 per cent were in their fifties and 63 per cent were female. 

While the history of most hoarders was unknown, the practice could stem from traumatic life events such as divorce, empty-nest syndrome, retirement, or job loss. 

‘Despite serious animal and human welfare implications,’ she said, ‘the issue has received surprisingly little research attention worldwide, with the exception of some work in the US.  The incidence of animal hoarding in Australia is unknown.’ 

Lack of mental health support 

Miss Ockenden said the study revealed ‘obvious frustration’ among both local councils and animal welfare agencies with the lack of support available from human mental health services. 

‘Animal welfare agencies are not qualified to deal with vulnerable people suffering from perceived mental health issues.’

However, the study concluded that as local council or RSPCA caseworkers usually make the initial contact with hoarders, they formed a trust that best positions them for long-term monitoring and prevention of problems.

‘For example, in New York the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recently advertised for a Cruelty Intervention Advocacy social worker,’ Miss Ockenden said.

‘Community hoarding task forces formed in the USA in the last two decades include a variety of human service providers such as mental health, fire, police, nursing, legal, public health and housing, and animal control.

‘It is clear from our study that a similar multidisciplinary task force is needed in Victoria, and it should ideally include mental health agencies.’ Miss Ockenden said.

The research project was supervised by Dr Bert De Groef (Department of Agricultural Sciences and AgriBio, La Trobe University) and Dr Linda Marston (Animal Welfare Science Centre, School of Psychology and Psychiatry, Monash University).

Media contact

Ernest Raetz, Media and Communications, 041 226 1919.

The full report is available online.

Image credit: Marc d'Entremont