Animal hoarding is a significant animal welfare challenge. Although recognised by human and animal services, it is generally poorly understood in terms of its prevalence, causes, influencing factors and response to intervention. Despite this, it is an important issue as it can result in the suffering of many animals. In addition, those responsible often repeat hoarding behaviour despite affected animals being removed and intervention attempts.
What is animal hoarding?
Animal hoarding occurs when an individual keeps a large number of animals but fails to provide adequate care and fails to recognise the suffering of the animals due to the lack of care.
Typically, hoarded animals suffer from:
- untreated diseases and other health conditions
- injuries, often from fighting
- poor nutrition and even death from starvation
- mental distress (e.g. fear, anxiety and frustration)
Why is it a problem?
Animal numbers keep increasing as the hoarded animals are usually not desexed and breed indiscriminately. Individuals responsible for the hoarding often fail to recognise that the animals are neglected and suffering. This makes it difficult to intervene to rescue the animals or provide appropriate human services support.
Hoarded animals are often forced to endure horrendous conditions where they are cramped together in small spaces, often living in their own excrement.
These unsanitary conditions create human and public health risks to anyone visiting or residing at or near the property. This can lead to the spread of zoonotic diseases (diseases that can be transferred from animals to humans) as well as bites and scratches from sick or frightened animals.
Some hoarders are overwhelmed caregivers or rescuers who initially had good intentions to save animals but become unable to provide sufficient care as numbers increased.
Animal hoarding is also commonly associated with squalor, where unsanitary conditions pose significant human health and safety risks.
How are animals affected?
Different animal species may be acquired by hoarders, but most studies in Australia have found cats to be the most common species affected. This might be explained by cats being relatively easy and cheap to acquire. In addition, their breeding cycle is faster than dogs, with kittens reaching breeding age by just 16 weeks. Other animals who may also be subjected to hoarding include rodents, birds, dogs, horses, farm animals and even wildlife.
Main issues for animals
Animals may be contained indoors or kept in a yard, however conditions are usually cramped or confined. Confinement for long periods causes physical problems due to lack of exercise, as well as mental stress created from boredom and frustration. In cases where multiple animals are housed together, there can be competition for food and water with weaker or more timid animals being bullied or attacked by other animals. Other impacts include the risk of heat or cold stress where animals are not provided with appropriate shelter. Further injuries may arise where animals are forced to lay on hard surfaces without bedding. Exposure to unnatural lighting including extended periods of darkness or continuous lighting can also adversely affect welfare.
A common consequence affecting hoarded animals is starvation due to insufficient or poor quality feed being provided. Over time, animals may either starve to death or die from disease due to their weakened state as they are unable to fight infections. Thirst leading to dehydration is also reported. In addition to lack of appropriate feed, poor hygiene can result in diseases arising from feed being contaminated, especially if feed bowls are not cleaned regularly or the feed is thrown on the ground.
Where animals are housed in cramped conditions in pens or cages, they are often forced to toilet in their living space. This leads to a build-up of faeces and urine that can cause disease, scalding of the skin and matting of the fur. It may also attract flies, ants and cockroaches. Ammonia levels can be quite high in areas not well ventilated and occupied by many animals – this causes painful eye irritation and respiratory problems.
Animals are generally not provided with adequate regular veterinary care or given treatment for disease or injury. This leads to many animals suffering for prolonged periods due to painful injuries, diseases or other welfare issues, including severe matting of the fur, ear infections or overgrown nails. In addition, animals are rarely desexed, vaccinated or given flea, tick or worm treatments.
What is the solution?
The key to preventing animals from suffering is for relevant agencies to work together to identify hoarding cases early, intervene quickly and provide support to individuals to prevent recurrence.
Wherever possible, RSPCA Victoria works with animal hoarders to resolve the problem, including encouraging surrender of animals for care and treatment.
Other considerations that may help reduce the welfare impacts of animal hoarding include provisions for early intervention, early rehoming of impacted animals (if possible), cross-reporting between human and animal services, mandating psychological treatment for hoarders, checking compliance with court orders and restrictions on future animal ownership.