Vet Talk

Is It a Rescue Group or an Animal Hoarder?

Animal rescues morphing into hoarders is one of the fastest growing types of animal abuse

Published: July 15, 2019
Rocky was labeled "B4" during his removal from a hoarder. He now lives the good life in a safe, clean home with his own spot in front of the fireplace. Rocky went home with the veterinarian who handled the case, Dr. Teri Ann Oursler.

Well before entering the structure, I could smell the distinct odor that comes from excess urine and feces. Once inside, there were signs of cats everywhere. Feces of all consistencies covered the floor, counters, walls, and furniture. Floor boards were warped from constant wetness. Permanent sickly brown staining ascended the walls. The cats themselves were in every room but the main office. They were loose in the building, on the counters and in the rafters, lying on the floors, and in kennels. While some appeared to be in general good health, many were thin and unkempt, their nostrils matted with snot, thick ropes of saliva hanging from their lips. Others were missing large patches of fur. Some were missing body parts: legs, eyes, or tails. Not all of the cats were still alive. Bodies in various stages of decomposition were found throughout the building including in the freezer next to microwavable burritos and under a sofa.

Was this the site of an animal hoarder? Of course.

It was also the facility of an animal rescue group.

While most rescues do a great job of housing and rehabilitating pets, often on a shoestring budget, and that give generously of their time and energy to place rescued pets in suitable homes, there are many that aren't well-managed, and some that are the opposite of rescues.

Animal rescues that morph into hoarders are one of the fastest growing types of animal abuse seen. It is unknown exactly how many animals are affected by hoarding, though the FBI now includes it and other forms of neglect in the data they collect on animal abuse. However, it is estimated that 250,000 animals are victims of hoarding each year. Because many animals may be in these situations for months, years, or sometimes their whole lives, the extent of suffering endured is tremendous. More animals experience cruelty due to neglect than from overt actions like beatings.

So what goes wrong? Why would a rescue group – an organization formed to protect animals – ever become a source of unimaginable abuse? We don’t have all the answers.

What we do know is that animal hoarding is often due to mental illness. As of 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) now lists “hoarding” as a mental illness. With this term they are referring specifically to object hoarding, the accumulation of large collections of non-living things. Oftentimes, these possessions are ones many people would consider to be useless trash like old newspapers and empty cans. While animal hoarders have some traits in common with object hoarders, animal hoarding is not considered to be a subset of object hoarding. Ultimately it may become its own diagnosis.

In many instances, animal rescue groups are led by one or a few people. They start with good intentions: plans to provide shelter, food, water, and medical care for homeless animals. The problem develops if that leader cannot find the balance between the number of animals and the amount of resources, a point often called the capacity for care. As defined by the University of California at Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program, “Capacity for care (C4C)… means meeting the needs of every animal admitted to a shelter, regardless of how they came in, when they came in or their age, health status and personality. Every sheltering organization must acknowledge their C4C and function within it to allow them to be the best resource for the animals and people in their community.” When rescue groups routinely and consistently exceed their resources with too many animals, that is when they devolve into animal hoarding.

Animal hoarding is more than just a large number of animals. A person could own 20 cats and not be a hoarder, whereas someone else may own only 10 cats and have all the signs of animal hoarding. Those signs are:

  1. The inability to meet the basic needs of food, water, shelter, and medical care for those animals
  2. An inability to fully recognize how these unmet needs affect the animals, themselves, and any other people in that environment
  3. The tendency to minimize or deny the unacceptable conditions; and
  4. An obsession to acquire more animals despite the current conditions.

This obsession can be the downfall of rescue groups. Some have trouble turning away a homeless animal. For instance, in 2012 the Caboodle Ranch in Florida had almost 700 cats removed from the property; some of those cats had been relinquished by their owners. Many rescues refuse to euthanize for any reason including poor health or terminal illness. In some situations, the hoarder starts as a government-sanctioned animal shelter, such as one in Alabama where the county had a contract with the rescue/hoarder. Others may resist adopting out animals to a new home or returning trap-neuter-release cats to the location from whence they came. (I know TNR cats can be their own source of community contention, but let’s not digress from today’s topic.) Regardless of how they get there, the rescue/hoarder cannot provide humane care for all of its animals.

The decline of the rescue may be gradual – an unwanted horse here, a litter of kittens there – until the tipping point is reached. In some instances, particularly that of organizations run by an individual or a couple, the decline may be sudden. The loss of a job or significant other may cause the rescuer to become unable to provide for the animals. Regardless of the speed of the decline, the animals suffer. Sadly, the recidivism rate for animal hoarders is near 100%. That means that without significant counseling and intervention, almost all hoarders will go back to accumulating animals even if every animal currently held is removed. Convictions alone do not eliminate the problem.

Although some states regulate animal shelters and rescues, due to a myriad of reasons, extreme situations may still develop. In 2010, the Association of Shelter Veterinarians developed a set of Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters so that individuals, organizations and communities could work to prevent these situations from occurring.

Therefore, if you need to rehome a pet, it is best to try to do it yourself, so you know the pet is receiving the care it needs while you search for an appropriate adopter. Should you be considering relinquishing your pet, the Humane Society of the United States has ideas on how you may be able to keep your pet instead, and how to find a new home if that is the best solution.

Should you need to use a rescue organization, there are tips on how to evaluate them. Anything we can do to keep our pets or to rehome them ourselves when necessary also indirectly supports the efforts of shelters and rescues: they can then use their resources to aid other animals. It is a win-win-win for ourselves, our pets, and our communities.

(Editor’s note: If you wish to see photos of animal hoarding situations, be sure you have a strong stomach for it. Also, if you're curious about the cat in the above photo, see Dr. Oursler's article on the hoarding case in which she found him.)

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