Pet hoarding called a disorder

Experts say type of animal cruelty is more an illness than a crime

September 29, 2006|By EMILY HAILE | EMILY HAILE,Capital News Service

People collect lots of things - salt shakers, antiques, dolls - but when they start to collect animals by the hundreds, it crosses a line.

It's called animal hoarding, and aside from being an issue of animal cruelty, experts are calling for further examination of a disorder they say is widely misunderstood.

In the latest case in the region, a 51-year-old Mount Airy woman was found guilty of 46 counts of animal neglect Tuesday after 119 living cats, and at least 100 dead ones, were found in her home.

Patricia K. Nicholson faces three years of probation, a psychological evaluation and about $10,000 in restitution when sentenced in November, according to the Frederick County State's Attorney's Office.

"You feel terrible for the animals, but we have to remember this is a tragedy all around. She lived in the same conditions that the animals did," said Kim Intino, director of animal sheltering at the Humane Society of the United States.

Intino sees hoarding as an illness more than a crime, but until the malady is more widely acknowledged, prosecution is often the only tool available to intervene.

Animal hoarding is a condition that affects more people than one might think, said Dr. Gary Patronek of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

Originally, the condition was associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which can involve the hoarding of inanimate objects, but as Patronek and his colleagues at the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium studied it, they found animal hoarding to be a unique way of coping with childhood trauma and displaced pain.

He described people suffering from the disorder, mostly older women living alone, as psychologically disconnected and living in a type of "blind spot," where they can't see the problem with what they are doing.

Pain, loss and unresolved grief, particularly from childhood traumas such as abusive or neglectful parenting, are often underlying causes of animal hoarding, Patronek said.

In some cases, the hoarders rely on animals as companions or sources of unconditional love. While this coping mechanism may help them in the short run, eventually it comes back to haunt them.

"We all know these awful childhood experiences are never completely shaken," Patronek said. "They can color our lives forever. Unfortunately this is how some of them eventually deal with it."

Patronek stressed that the hoarder profile is "highly speculative" because of the weakness of studies done on the issue. He isn't aware of any other group devoted to studying cases of animal hoarding.

In a 1999 study analyzing 54 cases from around the country, Patronek found that about two-thirds of hoarders are solitary women and nearly half are 60 or older.

Pet hoarders are a diverse bunch, as are the animals they collect, from cats and dogs to rabbits, birds and farm animals.

Patronek has seen hoarding cases in young people, married couples, even among health care workers and veterinarians.

Though hoarders can seem rational, compassionate, even sympathetic when interviewed, their professed love of animals distracts from the real issue.

"It is a behavior that's about satisfying a human need," Patronek said. "It's not about helping animals."

Acceptance of animal hoarding, particularly in the most widely used diagnostic manual, "doesn't happen out of the blue," said Patronek, and there needs to be a groundswell of support.

The only mention of hoarding in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is as a symptom of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, said Charles Mansueto, director of the Behavior Therapy Center of Greater Washington.

He said that scientific study of hoarding is a relatively recent phenomenon.

While some states have laws that require counseling in animal hoarding cases, they are hard to enforce, particularly because hoarders are "a very resistant population of people who don't believe they have a problem," Patronek said.

Experts recommend a task-force approach to hoarding cases involving police, social services, health officials and code enforcement.

"This is a community issue, not just an animal control issue."

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