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Anne Williams, Bemidji Pioneer, Published February 02 2012

Experts say animal hoarding difficult to treat, understand

BEMIDJI, Minn. - Animal hoarding is often misunderstood and can be difficult to treat, according to Jane Nathanson, a counselor and consultant for human-animal health and welfare in Boston.

Nathanson, who provides counseling and court-ordered assessments for animal hoarders and their families, said animal hoarding represents itself in a variety of ways and is not defined as one person having many animals.

Overwhelmed caregivers, people who feel the need to rescue animals, people who keep animals to serve their own needs and those who start breeding animals, but have difficulty maintaining proper care, are among those who can be considered animal hoarders, she said.

“I find there a number of psychological factors or conditions that contribute to animal hoarding behavior,” Nathanson said. “In the context of the law, it is considered animal hoarding. But the psychology of it is not animal hoarding. There are underlying factors.”

This week, Beltrami County Human Services filed a petition to commit Carol Schmidt after deputies found more than 100 dogs at her property near Bemidji last week. On Friday, a judge is expected to decide whether Schmidt should be held at a facility until a Feb. 10 commitment hearing.

The petition states Schmidt “exhibits the recognized and chronic behavior disorder of ‘animal hoarding’… (which) places Schmidt’s, the affected animals’ and the public health at serious risk.” The paperwork included a 2003 judge’s order to remove more than 50 animals from property owned by Schmidt and her father.

Wade Hanson, an animal hoarding expert with the Animal Humane Society, compared animal hoarding to a disease.

“It’s a disease where they keep collecting animals; the animals are breeding and it gets out of hand and they don’t know what to do,” he said this week.

Hanson said with most of the animal hoarding cases he has worked on, the person believes they are taking good care of the animals.

“They think they’re doing a good job so they get a few more, but soon there is no money to pay for neutering or spaying, litters come and soon it gets out of hand,” he said. “Some people can care for 10 or 15 dogs perfectly, but when a person gets too tired or too busy to keep up with the cleaning, feeding and veterinarian care, that’s where they run into problems.”

Hanson said most cases he’s encountered involve cats and dogs.

“There are so many stray cats and dogs around, they’re easier to get,” he said. “They can have quite a few litters in a year.”

According to a 2009 article Nathanson coauthored, which was published in the Clinical Psychology Review, there is little information about what prompts someone to hoard animals.

“In our experience, a traumatic event, such as loss of an unusually stabilizing adult relationship, a serious health crisis or a loss of a major bodily function often precedes full-blown animal hoarding and may play a role,” the article states.

Nathanson said she believes in the last 10 years more people have become aware of animal hoarding, partly because of shows like Animal Planet’s “Confessions: Animal Hoarding.”

“There has been such exposure to how these animals and people are living,” Nathanson said. “People are left in shock and awe when they realize this isn’t the case of people taking animals under their wings and loving them. They realize animals cannot live in squalor.”

Animal hoarders can sometimes build an artificial colony and can create conditions that exceed animals’ instincts, she said.

“Feral cats will sometimes form colonies and dogs will have packs, but there are limits set in the natural capacity,” Nathanson said. “With hoarding, you’re overriding the animals’ instincts for space and resources.”

In some cases, she added, the animals may appear healthy and normal, but people may not realize what is really going on during feeding time.

“You don’t see who is being supplanted when the animals set up a hierarchy,” she said. “You don’t see who is eating, who isn’t, who is vomiting and who is having diarrhea.”

Sometimes, she added, a person does not realize the living conditions are not only untenable for animal life, but are also untenable for their own life.

Hanson said many people will become embarrassed of their living conditions or number of animals, choosing to stay quiet about any problems they may have.

“Unless a neighbor pries or someone steps forward, it’s not recognized,” he said.

When it comes to treating the behavior of animal hoarding, Nathanson said, without counseling, the behavior is likely to occur again. Different hoarders need different interventions, she added.

“So many individuals who have been mandated for counseling go to a treatment facility for animal hoarding, but are told at the center, “What’s that? We don’t know anything about that,’” she said.

Even under the best circumstances, the prognosis for hoarders can be difficult to determine. Hoarding requires constant follow-up. Changing the environment does not change the behavior, Nathanson said.

“I do feel these individuals can achieve satisfactory state of physical or mental health wellbeing, but it is a very difficult process,” she said. “It’s not easy going.”

When hoarders are separated from their animals, Nathanson said it can be a traumatic experience for the animals and human.

“These individuals have formed their mainstay relationship with these animals,” she said. “They’ve created a world apart where the animals are a source of their identity and self-esteem.”

Whether a person can be treated for animal hoarding also depends on whether the person admits there is a problem, Nathanson said.

“When you mandate someone to be treated, the element of awareness is tremendously significant as to how hard it’s going to be to do a reality test with an individual,” she said.

Nathanson said she hopes more publicity of animal hoarding will lead to more people to become involved, particularly in the mental health field.

“I hear from a lot of families in distress because a family member is a hoarder and they don’t have the vaguest idea of what to do,” she said. “So often families are destroyed or isolated because they do not know where to get help.”

She recommends people visit the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium website at http://vet.tufts.edu/hoarding/ for more information.