Clinic Stories


About once a year I get involved with an animal hoarding situation. A typical situation is a middle aged to older woman who has 20 to 100 cats in her home. Mostly I get involved with the animals after they are removed by Animal Control so I do not see the house or meet the people. In a true hoarding situation the animals are not well cared for and are often feral and sick. There are exceptions to all of the previous statements but one thing binds all hoarding cases. They are always painful.

While most hoarders have cats, some have dogs, sometimes big dogs. Often the dog hoarders claim to be breeders except they can't bear to sell the puppies. They accumulate generations of litters until the situation gets out of hand. One pet store kept dogs that they could not sell in crates in the basement for years then left them behind when they went out of business. One woman had 1000 live and 1000 dead birds in her house and claimed to be conducting scientific experiments.

Hoarding situations are mostly reported by relatives, neighbors, veterinarians, police, firemen or ambulance drivers, or become known when the owner dies. Many hoarding situations also come to light as a result of a fire. Most fires likely result from poor housekeeping, accumulated debris and lack of proper home maintenance. A few seem to be started by someone trying to put an end to a hoarding situation.

The rationale of many hoarders is compassion, they believe they are caring for and helping the animals. I had a veterinary school classmate who was a hoarder. She was constantly being evicted from apartments because of her dozens of animals which included indoor chickens in Philadelphia. She couldn't bear the thought that the animals would be placed in a shelter or euthanized.

What sets hoarders apart from other pet owners is that they are not capable of caring for the animals but cannot place them anywhere else. Cat and dog breeders may have large numbers of animals but the animals are well cared for and the owners can part with them at the appropriate times. Because hoarders usually live alone and are not mentally well, the homes are filthy and the smell overpowering. Frequently every surface is covered in urine or feces.

Health problems in the home owners are as common as they are in the animals in the home, so medical personnel will report the horrifically unhygienic conditions. The animals are usually filthy, feral, flea infested and sick. Some hoarders are exposed when they bring many animals to a veterinarian or shelter after a group has died from a disease outbreak. Survivors often are euthanized due to poor health and their feral nature. It is not uncommon to learn upon the death of a person that they were keeping too many animals in their home. Many times the floors and in some cases the houses are ruined.

I know of several homes that have been destroyed by chronic hoarding. I was called out on an emergency one night by animal control. A 400 square foot rental house behind a main house had a fire. The couple living there awoke to smoke They opened the front door to let out as many of their 80 cats as they could. Unfortunately in fires cats tend to hide and freeze. About one third went outside and were caught by neighbors, about one third died in the house and 26 cats were euthanized on site for smoke inhalation. The electric utility staff refused to enter the house the next day due to the smell and amount of feces and disconnected the power from the pole. Within a week the house was leveled by a bulldozer and hauled away. Sometimes people wear hazmat suits when going into a hoarder house.

Hoarding is a mental illness. Cases should be reported to animal control in the interest of the owners and the animals.

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