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September 28, 2010 > Ohlone Humane Society: Too much of a good thing

Ohlone Humane Society: Too much of a good thing

By Nancy Lyon

If you've ever visited someone's home and been greeted by a sea of animals, it may be an indicator that something in the home is out of balance and that the person has slipped over the edge from being kind and compassionate into the dark area of animal hoarding.

Is everyone with numerous animals considered a hoarder? No.

A hoarder is the animal person with many animal companions is not considered a hoarder if the animals have been spayed and neutered and prevented from breeding, and if they receive regular veterinary care, and if they live in decent conditions. (Note that they may not be in compliance with local regulations regarding the number of animals they may have on their property.)

Hoarding is a more extreme situation in that the animals that the hoarder claims to love can be suffering from the lack of the very basics such as adequate food and water, a healthy living environment and veterinary care. In worst case scenarios the home situation can be appalling with floors, furniture and just about every available surface covered with animal feces and urine. Animal protection agencies have reported cases where among the living animals and filth they have found swarming insects, rodent droppings and decomposing animal bodies.

Researchers say that there is no one "profile" to hoarders, and there are many questions as to why this behavior develops. It can simply be a well-meaning individual that takes on more responsibility than they can handle and is trapped by their good intentions with no cruel intent, or it can be someone with psychological problems that falls into hoarding to fill an emotional need. Whatever the underlying reason it becomes a situation that involves the question of the person's mental health, the welfare of the animals, public safety and includes the welfare and protection of any children in the home.

According to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) there is a general consensus that animal hoarding is a symptom of psychological and neurological malfunctioning, which might involve dementia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Treatment is difficult and has a low rate of success. Typically a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy and some type of psychopharmacological intervention is recommended.

When an animal hoarder refuses help and the conditions are such that cruelty charges are not filed, then non-animal agencies can step in and bring change about. For example, fire departments can cite hoarders for fire code violations, and health departments can intervene to ensure that the problem is corrected. However, because of the high rate of repeat offenders, it is recommended that animal control, social service agencies, and health and housing agencies work together to treat each animal hoarding situation as a long-term project. It is also recommended that the family and those close to the hoarder be involved in the intervention.

It's not just misguided or mentally ill individuals that can become hoarders. Even rescue groups or individuals can fall into the category of being a hoarder. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) states that there are clear markers that hoarding may be involved:

* The group/individual is unwilling to let visitors see the location where animals are kept.
* They will not disclose the number of animals in its care.
* Little effort is made to adopt animals out.
* More animals are continually taken in, despite the poor condition of existing animals.
* Legitimate shelters and rescue organizations are viewed as the enemy.
* Animals may be received at a remote location (parking lot, street corner, etc.) rather than at the group or individual's facilities.

With easy access to animals in need via the Internet, collecting more animals than can be responsibly cared for and in numbers beyond their ability to be re-homed occurs more often than you would think. Animal protection agencies state that there is an estimated 900 to 2,000 new cases of animal hoarding every year in the United States, with a quarter million animals falling victim. The animals involved range from cats and dogs to reptiles, rodents, birds, exotics of many species and farmed animals.

While it's not unusual for rescuers that are trying to help animals to become temporarily snowed under, they too must be held to the same high standard of care.

What do you do if you suspect that a hoarding situation is occurring? First of all, don't turn away from the animals and people in need.

Hoarders are often in denial of their failure to care for their animals. They profess love and devotion while disregarding the reality around them. Others are people that have gotten themselves in a place that is way over their ability to deal with and have given up all hope of finding a way out. Whatever the problem, it must not be allowed to continue. These situations will only worsen and it is always better to say something-this is the first step for both the animals and the people to get the help they need.

If you know of a possible animal hoarding situation, please call your local humane law enforcement department such as Animal Services, police department, local animal welfare group or veterinarian to start the process. You won't be getting the person "in trouble," that phone call may be the first step to saving everyone involved.

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