What Turns an Animal Rescuer Into an Animal Hoarder?

Something inexplicable happens to an astounding 25 percent of all animal rescuers and animal shelter operators. Somewhere along the line, they just go overboard. Without even realizing it, they slip quietly and irrevocably to the Dark Side. They become animal hoarders.

They don’t mean to do it. If asked, they’d deny it. They simply don’t realize or won’t accept that it has happened. How can this be true? Mental illness takes many forms and this is one.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) estimates that there are up to 6,000 new cases of animal hoarding every year, affecting 250,000 animals.

Whats Behind Animal Hoarding?

“Historically, a person who collected animals was viewed as an animal lover who got in over his or her head, but the truth is that people who hoard are experiencing a total loss of insight,” Dr. Randall Lockwood, ASPCA Senior Vice President, Forensic Sciences and Anti-cruelty Projects says on ASPCA’s website. “They have no real perception of the harm they’re doing to the animals.”

That harm is devastatingly real. Hoarders delude themselves into believing no one can match the “superior” level of love and care they give to their animals. This can be particularly true for animal rescuers who cross the line. The reality of their situation can be horrific.

News stories abound describing the conditions in hoarders’ homes and facilities. Authorities find rotting animal carcasses, starving dogs and cats packed into cages, overwhelming decay and stink, trash piled everywhere, infestations of fleas, rampant disease, mounds of feces and worse.

“Being kept by a hoarder is a slow kind of death for the animal,” said Dr. Lockwood.  “Actually, it can be a fate worse than death.”

See one example of what animal hoarding looks like here:

How can hoarders and those around them not see what’s really going on? The answer is complex. According to the ASPCA:

In the majority of cases, animal hoarders appear intelligent and clearly believe they are helping their animals. They often claim that any home is better than letting that animal die. In addition, many hoarders possess the ability to garner sympathy and to deceive others into thinking their situation is under control.

How to Identify an Animal Hoarder and How to Help

According to the Humane Society of the United States, here’s the combination to watch for if you’re wondering if someone you know may be an animal hoarder:

  • Too many animals (more pets than are typical for most people)
  • Inability to adequately feed, shelter, clean and provide veterinary care for them
  • Denial, in the face of all this, that there’s a problem and that it is affecting the animals’ welfare

Can someone have 25 cats and appropriately feed, house and provide adequate medical care for all of them? Certainly, and if so, she’s not a hoarder. She’s just a “crazy cat person” or perhaps a busy rescue organization.

Conversely, if someone has a deep-seated need to help every homeless or rescue animal he can find, he may have a problem. If he feels no one else can do what he does for the animals, if he seems not to be aware of deteriorating conditions and poor animal health, or if he has continuing excuses for why there’s an ongoing lack of decent care, ring those warning bells.

Hoarders of all types tend to have certain qualities in common. Many are depressed. Some have dementia. Others suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder or attachment disorders. Often, a hoarder will have suffered some traumatic loss and is collecting animals as a way of coping, even if he doesn’t realize what he’s doing.

Photo inside hoarder home

Inside a hoarder's home. Photo credit: Solon (OH) Police Department

Sadly, even supposed “rescue organizations” can end up as covers for hoarders. Don’t let a website and official non-profit status fool you. If a “rescue group” doesn’t let you see where they keep their animals, doesn’t know or won’t say how many animals they have, takes in every animal but rarely seems to adopt any back out, there’s probably a problem.

If you suspect a hoarding situation, do something. Don’t let fear of getting a “nice person” in trouble stop you if the signs of hoarding are inescapable. The animals need your help. Call your local humane society or animal control.

“Often people don’t report hoarding situations because they are worried the hoarder will get in trouble or that the animals will get taken away,” said Allison Cardona, ASPCA’s Director of Disaster Response. “What I would like to stress is that these situations only get worse with time, and the animals always end up getting taken out of the home. 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.”

Hoarders can and should get psychological help, but unfortunately it’s a difficult problem to overcome. The recidivism rate for hoarding is estimated at almost 100 percent. If you know a hoarder and want to help, offer your support while doing what’s necessary to get the animals out of that situation. That’s the win-win end result for everyone.

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Maggie W.
Maggie D.about a year ago

You'll do the animals a big favor and save lives by reporting any suspicious activity.

Claire Jordan
Claire Jordanabout a year ago

It can happen with children too. My great grandfather, who was chief inspector for the RSSPCC in Edinburgh, dealt with a case where a Christian organisation kept taking in orphaned children because it felt it couldn't turn them away, even though they were becoming more and more overcrowded, then didn't provide adequate medical care, resulting in outbreaks of disease. A little boy with a weak heart died of diphtheria as a result.

Nicole Heindryckx
Nicole Heindryckxabout a year ago

But due to their mental state of mind (sickness) they can no longer make the difference between the help they are giving to these animals and the suffering they cause. One thing that has to be done is FIRST LINE help and this by informing animals rescue organisations or the local police about what is happening in your neightbour's house / garden. It is impossible for these authorities to go from door to door to have a regular check up of all people having pets, so it is our DUTY to report these discrepancies to the authorities.

Nicole Heindryckx
Nicole Heindryckxabout a year ago

Furthermore, it is totally impossible to put a figure on the number of animals you can take into your care. It first depends on the space you have available. Do you have to keep them in a small house or apartment ? Do you have a garden, with sufficient and effective protection against sun, rain, strong winds, cold etc.. Then there is the big issue of money. When you have yourself 1 or 2 animals, and you take care of a regular vet check, vaccinations, eventual diet foods etc.. it costs a serious amount of money. Most hoarders are people living alone, on a small income such as pension, invalidity, or other live supporting revenues. These are normally even not sufficient to take care of yourselves and at the most 1 or 2 cats, but certainly not for a heard of animals. And on top of all this you need a lot of time. Even when the animals are not walking freely around in your apartment, the cleaning up of the shelters outside, feeding and giving them fresh water twice a day consumes quite some time. And then you also have to give them a bath, brush and groom them.... the list is very long. And in case you can not count of the help of some nice neighbours or friends, you easily reach the maximum of animals you can take care of. Therefore one can not put a figure of the number of animals one can keep. It is a mathematical calculation of space, time, income, etc... And never, never accuse a hoarder. They all have the intention to help animals in need. But due to their

Nicole Heindryckx
Nicole Heindryckxabout a year ago

A hoarder is a mentally ill person. Whatever the deeper cause may be, a hoarder never had/has the intention to cause any pain, damage, neglect of the animals. As in most cases, they start with a couple of dogs or cats, and once people know you help street cats and dogs, they come knocking at your door with "so called found" animals. The hoarders can not say no. Because they fear these poor animals will end up in a kill shelter, and that is out of the question. I fully agree that a kill shelter is the utmost LAST possibility to take an animal out of its misery. However, when you start adding up cats, dogs, birds, etc.. so that finally you end up by not having sufficient money to provide proper food, vet care and are running out of time of clean up your house of the animals' shelters, I myself believe this is even worse than euthanasia. May be some of these pets will still live for many years, hungry as wolves every day, fighting for a bit of bread, suffering from painful diseases, laying down and sleeping in their own feces, and then kill shelters are to be preferred. And one can not condemn the hoarder for his behaviour, because his sick mind is unaware of the bad lives they are causing to their animals, which they all love.

Jim Ven
Jim Venabout a year ago

thanks for the article.

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Kaileen Reynolds
Kaileen Reynolds2 years ago


Jinny L.

Excellent posts on this subject. Thanks for sharing.

Lynn C.
Lyn n C.2 years ago