Sunday, March 27, 2011

Hoarding. Where is the line?

Hoarding has become a very popular subject in today's society - especially in the realm of reality TV, it would seem. A couple of months ago, I was vacantly channel surfing, and I came across TLC's show "Hoarding: Buried Alive." The whole premise of the show is that hoarding is a mental illness and that the people depicted need intervention to live normal lives. While I think there is a whole area to be explored here (what is mental illness? if it's not hurting anyone, why should people interfere? whose business is it?) - I want to talk about animal hoarding.

I am very bothered when the government tries to intervene and set limits on how many animals a person can own. I have read of state and local laws limiting owners to a certain amount of pets. In the big city adjacent to our small town, there are laws about how many dogs one can own. This invasion of personal freedoms is infuriating, but that is not the topic of my post.

My question is this: what is the definition of true animal hoarding? When should outsiders get involved?

When asking this question, my mind automatically goes to Ms Spencer. Ms Spencer is a single lady that lives with her mother. She takes in cats and kittens as "fosters." None of us know exactly how many cats and kittens she has, but we can always tell she has been in the clinic because of the pungent odor associated with her, her clothing, her cat carriers, and her cats. It is the overwhelming reek of cat urine.

We see Ms Spencer at least 1-2 times a month with an ill cat. The last one to visit us I diagnosed with FIP - a fatal disease associated with high density cat populations (catteries). Ms Spencer is loathe to euthanize any cat and will do whatever is financially necessary to provide medical care for them. She is also well-read on subjects of cat health and knew that FIP is uniformly fatal. We did euthanize that cat.

Prior to that, she brought in a cat that she had very recently agreed to foster. The cat had a pyometra, because it was not yet spayed. She paid for surgery to spay the cat, as well as the long and expensive aftercare, as the cat developed complications and eventually died. Before that cat, it was a cat with severe neurological signs, seizures, obtundation, and an unknown diagnosis. She treated that cat for 6 days in the hospital (spending over $2000) before the cat started to recover (we suspect toxoplasmosis).

The point is, Ms Spencer will do whatever is necessary to care for these cats. They are not sick, they are not emaciated, they are all vaccinated, tested for feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus, and they are free of ectoparasites such as fleas. She takes good care of them. Whenever she brings them to us for care, her trust in us is implicit, and she does whatever we recommend. She is the ideal client. She herself is a frail, tiny woman.

We suspect that she has at least 30+ cats based on how many we've seen. No one knows for sure, and she is not forthcoming with that information (none of us have ever asked, though). Now, would you call her a hoarder? Should someone intervene? She has the financial resources to care for the cats, they are well cared for and adopted out eventually. My contention is that she is a model owner, doing good deeds for these cats that would otherwise be euthanized, and that she should be left in peace to continue her cat good deeds. Others would argue that she has a mental illness and that someone should intervene.

I find that thought funny given some of the horrible things I see "non-hoarder" owners do - not vaccinating their pets, not spaying/neutering, and breeding dogs that are 10+ years old, to name a few. No one argues that those pets should be taken away from the owners, yet they are far, far less well-cared for than Ms Spencers million cats.

So, what do ya'll think. What is hoarding to you?


Shannon said...

Hoarding is a tough subject all around. And as a cat rescuer, many would consider my 8-10 cat (3 permanent residences, the rest temporary fosters) household as evidence of my 'hoarding'. I also volunteer with people who have cats into the teens and I've been in these houses where there is little evidence that it is home to almost 20 felines.
A nearby large city has a limit on the number of 'liscenable' pets any one household can keep. And I've always disagreed with this stance. Although I understand the need to put a black and white label on it from a legal perspective, animal hoarding black and white. People become hoarders when they have more cats or animals then they can properly care for.
Is a person with 1 cat who fails to provide it with necessary care a hoarder? Not in my eyes. But they are a bad/irresponsible/unknowledgeable owner and the law needs more teeth to deal with those people too.

clairesmum said...

My relatively limited experience with hoarders (4 years of work as an elder abuse responder) suggest that this lady is not the typical animal hoarder. In all the cases I have known or read about, the animals were NOT well cared for - inadequate vet care, poor sanitation, remains of deceased animals not properly disposed of, etc. If she is adopting out the cats, that is also unusual. For true hoarders, the ability to give away or discard the items hoarded is absent - that's how folks get into the predicaments you see on TV.

rgcarr said...

I agree! No surprise. As long as you aren't talking about me in any way!

Anonymous said...

I think you've hit on a key point, and one I've begun to use to distinguish hoarding: the ability to pay for adequate care for all of the pets. I think from a veterinarian's point of view, that definition is sufficient; that's when we are supposed to step in, when the health of the animals is being compromised.

I think the argument could be made that keeping X amount of animals in one household /is/ actually jeopardizing health, due to diseases being spread, sanitation issues, etc. A gray area, true. But I think as long as the owners are willing to appropriately handle the health problems that arise from overcrowding, it's not our place to interfere.

Anonymous said...

The state I live in has a pretty strict limit within urban areas to two dogs per household, and up to seven cats. They regularly take dogs away because people violate this law, which I think is ridiculous. It is people who don't take care of their animals who should be targeted, whether it is one animal or seven. Though I sometimes wish the city would crack down on my neighbor who has four dogs confined to a space 10 x 6 right next to my fence, but mostly because the dogs are always trying to get through the fence to get to my dogs.

Personally I think the time to intervene would be when a person can not take care of the animals they have and are trying to get more animals.

Anonymous said...

I'm an ambulatory veterinarian, and I've been to the homes of animal hoarders. What you are seeing in your clinic may not be representative of what's going on at your clients' homes.

I'm not in favor of laws restricting numbers of animals, but minimum standards of sanitation, nutrition, space and medical care: yes.

Karen Whiddon said...

To me, hoarding is when you have so many animals you can't take care of them.

30 cats being well tended is not, despite the sheer OMG of the number, hoarding.

10 cats being starved and allowed to wallow in their own excrement is hoarding.

That's my take.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting point you bring up here. It's really a difficult call to make, and I agree with you about how lawmakers really shouldn't be enforcing limitations (I know classmates of mine that have reached their "limits" by virtue of being vet students, living with other vet students, and owning several dogs and cats...).

I think hoarding and animal neglect should be treated on a case-by-case basis, similar to child neglect. There are teachers, doctors, and other people in positions of authority who monitor activity and are required by law to report cruelty or neglect, much like how veterinarians are.

Your mention of Ms Spencer's pungent smell does make me worry, however. How can her place possibly be clean enough for living with 30+ cats!?

DrSteggy said...

I think a key part of hoarding is being unable/unwilling to care for animals in your care.

At my old job, we had 2 clients with a lot of cats. One had about 20 cats at any given time, we were their only vet (unless they needed after hours emergency care), all these cats were up to date on recommended wellness care and they got whatever they needed.

The other one had an unknown number of cats, and she was always acquiring more. she fed strays and would sometimes catch these and introduce them to her population of cats without doing any sort of retrovirus screening or even a propylactic deworming, never mind vaccinations. She was also loathe to euthanize cats, and cats often suffered in her care with end stage renal failure, or diseases she did not work up adequately. She also vet hopped--we were one of a pool of vets she used. Every now and then she would drop a ton of money trying to put some poor creature back together, but I am at a loss to describe what her rhyme or reason was for case selection. Most times she would decline even a basic workup to try and figure out a problem.

She did pay her bills (eventually) so my boss saw no problem with her behaviors.

I personally think that client one was a good cat owner and client two was a hoarder. I think that if your older lady is covering the wellness care on her charges, then she is no hoarder, and caring for her cats is just her hobby.

Anonymous said...

>>Your mention of Ms Spencer's pungent smell does make me worry, however.>>

I'd be concerned, too.

According to those who study animal hoarding (HARC - definitely visit their informative website vs. watching reality TV; one of the founders is a veterinarian and epidemiologist), in recent years, about 20% of the true cases of animal hoarding involve "rescues". That's an alarming change.

Hoarding is a mental illness, and cannot be defined by the number of animals one owns.

Now, what to do? I'd keep a close eye on the situation, even if you think the client is managing for now. Certain high-population owners (for lack of a better term) can deteriorate into actual hoarding after a personal stressor (loss of loved one, income loss, illness, etc.) or simply over time.

One of my former clients did just this. When I knew her four years ago, she had a high number of animals, and didn't keep the cleanest home but seemed to be managing. Then she stopped calling altogether. I later found out she had started collecting and breeding (still selling a puppy here or there, BTW). Finally, the neighbors began to complain about the odor. The police found crowded, filthy conditions, along with several dead animals among the living.

Another of my clients stays under control (60+ animals currently) only because animal law enforcement regularly visits and works with her. For a while, I tried to do it in partnership with the town ACO and failed. Her house is still uninhabitable (I'm one of the few who has been inside), but the animals are okay and no children or elders are involved.

Unless you see the home in person, you do not know the true situation.

Nicki said...

I think when they have too many to properly care for both from a financial, sanitary and time standpoint that it should be considered hoarding. I think this is even truer when they are confronted with this and still refuse to relinquish the pets even if they are in obviously poor health. But it's not a cut and dry subject for sure.

The Homeless Parrot said...

It's encouraging to see that most people define hoarding in the same general terms - not based on number, but based on ability and willingness to care for the pets. Unfortunately, state and local gov't often don't see it this way. It's very frustrating and an invasion of our freedoms, but what're you gonna do?
Oh, right. Vote 'em out!

And I certainly agree that you don't always know what's going on in the houses, but if the animals are in good health, free of ectoparasites (which are often a sign of poor living conditions), and are otherwise doing well, it's really none of my business what's going on in the owner's house.

Anonymous said...

But your client's animals are not all in good health. You said that every month she brings in at least one with a significant problem. You don't even know how many she has. How do you know they're all vaccinated when you haven't seen every animal?

The hoarders in my practice are master liars and manipulators. Again, I would not know this if I hadn't known them for years and actually visited their homes. BTW, if you met my hoarder clients, you would like them - I like them, just as I like my paranoid schizophrenic clients and my bipolar clients.

I don't know if your client is a hoarder or not, but it is NOT normal, even for a client who owns many animals, to reek of urine. Imagine you were a kindergarten teacher instead of a veterinarian, and one of the kids in your class regularly reeked of urine: wouldn't you check out the situation?

What would I do about it? Well, I have a good relationship with my local animal law enforcement: they trust me, and I trust them. I know they're reasonable people.

Make friends with an animal cop you can trust, and send her over to check on your client.

The Homeless Parrot said...

Anon- excellent points. In her defense as to the ill animals - most of them are animals that she has recently acquired. Now, this is according to her, and I do have to take her word for it. On the other hand, this woman regularly spends thousands of dollars on these animals. I have a very hard time believing that she is not vaccinating/spaying/neutering.

She is also very well-read on subjects of vaccines, FIP, and the like - and always asks intelligent questions.

She could definitely be a liar, no doubt. To me, the problem exists that a) I have absolutely no evidence of wrongdoing, so sending someone to her house is, in my opinion, a violation of her privacy and freedom and b) we have the crappiest animal control in the world in our county. I'm talking Grade F type AC.

As to the reek of cat urine, I will say this, too - I have a close, dear friend with an elderly relative that lives with her. He is especially fond of cats, and he lets the ferals into the house frequently. The house is not otherwise filthy or disgusting, but these cats will urinate on the carpet (which the owner shampoos weekly). As a result, the house reeks of cat urine. The conditions within it are not deplorable or detestable in any way, otherwise.

I agree with all of your points, but I do think it is important to protect an individual's rights when there is no evidence of wrong-doing. I cannot imagine the invasion I would feel if a cop came over to investigate my house because I owned 10 pets. Now, if there were evidence of neglect, then yes, I would feel the need to intervene! Not that our AC would do a damned thing about it. They are concerned with water and food, nothing else is considered crucial to animal welfare in their book.

The Homeless Parrot said...

Oh, and also, we work with her rDVM, who does see her regularly for routine care on the cats - and she has over 25 listed with him - all current on vaccines, flea preventative, and the like.

Anonymous said...

I usually don't work with animal control because some towns have really crappy ACOs. I work with the state animal law enforcement unit. Whole different group; total professionals.

In most towns in my area, barns and kennels are inspected on an annual basis. Is it an invasion of privacy? No more than opening one's home to the town tax assessor, or, when you think about it, veterinarians being required to send rabies vaccination records for dogs to each town for licensing purposes.

You and the rDVM may like this client, and she may spend a lot of money on her cats, but I'd be concerned. At the very least, I'd send law enforcement on a drive-by look-see. If all is well: great.

You do not want to see your client on the local news.

The Homeless Parrot said...

Anon, I think we'll just have to agree to disagree on this one :)