Animal hoarding problems can be curbed only by looking at needs of both animals and humans, says an expert in the field.
Dr. Christiana Bratiotis from the University of British Columbia says animal hoarding is poorly understood.
She said in rural North America the predominant type of hoarding involves livestock and that presents different challenges than situations involving domestic animals such as cats and dogs.
“It isn’t just about quantity,” she said in an interview. “It’s also about care and condition of the animals.”
A workshop on animal hoarding attended by people who work in both human services and animal services heard there is no number when it comes to what constitutes hoarding.
There can be just a handful of animals, but if the people aren’t providing good living conditions and health care, and deny that they aren’t caring for the animals properly, they could fit the hoarding definition.
Bratiotis said although animal hoarding isn’t well understood, people who hoard objects have diagnosable, mental health conditions based in anxiety.
“They are often, in over 50 percent of cases, diagnosed with major depressive disorder and an assortment of other primary mental health problems,” she said. “In animal hoarding we don’t have as good of a handle on what that is, but we generally understand them to be a population of people who suffer with a wide range of mental health conditions similar to object hoarding, so anxiety-based depression based disorders along with other strong personality features that accompany these disorders make intervention really quite challenging and make it so the person doesn’t necessarily want intervention.”
Typically in animal hoarding cases, authorities come in and remove the animals. This is the right thing to do, she said, but doesn’t deal with the problem. The person is left without the thing that mattered most and no supports to deal with the mental health problem.
Bratiotis said this is largely because people approach situations from their own disciplinary lens. A social worker, for example, would remove a child from a home but not a dog. A veterinarian is equipped to deal with the dog, but not a child.
That’s why a multidisciplinary approach is needed.
In Manitoba, the Prairie Mountain Interagency Hoarding Coalition involves multiple human and animal agencies to investigate and deal with complaints of hoarding.
Dr. Colleen Marion, a veterinarian and animal protection officer who is part of the coalition, outlined a case study that concluded with removing animals and also getting the human owners the medical and mental help they needed.
But she said it can take a long time to co-ordinate and come to resolution.
Bratiotis said animal hoarders repeat their behaviours in 50 to 100 percent of cases because of a lack of treatment.
“Their inclination is to go back out in the world and seek the thing that brings them comfort.”
She said research is required to look into why people hoard animals to better understand and develop treatment options.
“I think the second piece is to actually provide ongoing supports for the person so they potentially are left with some quantity of animals that they have the ability to have a strong relationship with while also being monitored so they don’t re-accumulate to the large numbers,” she said.
“Finally, another much more basic thing we can do is just to provide accurate information and education around this problem.”
The shame and stigma associated with animal hoarding must be reduced so that people can come forward and ask for help, she said.
Currently, hoarders face a huge risk of prosecution and other negative consequences.
Research done 10 years ago in the United States estimated about five percent, or 16 million Americans, hoard objects. Animal hoarding cases are estimated at between 700 and 2,000 annually, but Bratiotis said that is a “gross underestimate” and she believes the object hoarding numbers are also higher.
Research has also found hoarders tend to be women around 50 years old, who are single or socially isolated.
Hoarders have an “extraordinary tolerance for poor hygiene” that most others can’t understand, and are often delusional in their beliefs. For example, one dog hoarder believed brown water in a water bowl was magic potion, rather than drinking water in which the animals had defecated.
Many believe they are the best people to care for their animals even though they are overburdened and unable to do so.
In Saskatchewan, the RCMP and Animal Protection Services of Saskatchewan are working on a new policy to deal with animal hoarding.
Sgt. Burton Jones told the workshop he had dealt with the problem quite a bit during his 16 years in various detachments.
APSS executive director Don Ferguson said of about 700 calls the agency had attended, 10 would fit the hoarding criteria.
Veterinarian Dr. Jordan Woodsworth said it’s important when investigating to go into all rooms of a house to understand all the conditions. Zoonotic diseases, which can be transferred from animals to humans, are a real concern, she said.