Animal Hoarding Animal Welfare—Experiences from Different Countries and Cultures 2
World Small Animal Veterinary Association Congress Proceedings, 2019
L. Jacobson
Shelter Medicine Advancement, Toronto Humane Society, Toronto, ON, Canada

Canadian animal hoarding cases rarely appear in the peer-reviewed literature.1 In addition to 6 published Manitoba cases,1 an Internet search going back to 2011 found 11 cases in the popular media. Of the 17 cases, 7 were from Ontario, 6 Manitoba, 2 Quebec, and 1 each from 1 British Columbia and Alberta. Thirteen included only or predominantly cats, 2 dogs, 1 rabbit and 1 horse. Multiple species were reported in 3 cases. The total number of animals was 1,192 (average 70; median 64; range 26 to 200). This is higher than the median of 39 reported in a landmark paper.2 This may be because only the most severe cases are reported. The Toronto Humane Society (THS) collected data on hoarded 371 cats surrendered from 2011–2014 (submitted for publication) for which the average group was 27, median 21, and range 10–77. These types of cases, which anecdotally are frequently seen by other shelters, are rarely reported.

The barriers to legal intervention in hoarding are high and this model is slow, expensive and frequently ineffective, with a high recidivism rate.3,4 The Canadian Criminal Code and provincial legislation do not specifically address animal hoarding,5 and neglect is viewed differently from active cruelty. There is, additionally, a need to balance the criminal actions of the hoarder with their attachment to the animals and their belief that they are helping them.

Harm reduction, which originates from the substance abuse field, aims to reduce the harmful consequences of behaviours without attempting to “cure” them.6 This approach has had impressive results in object hoarding7 and can also be applied to animal hoarding.4,8,9 The underlying themes in harm reduction are pragmatism, focus on harms, prioritization of goals, autonomy and evaluation.6 The Toronto City Council has developed a coordinated, harm reduction approach that now, thanks to the efforts of Toronto Animal Services and the THS, includes animal hoarding as well as object hoarding.10

Case Study 1. The Black and White Cats

A cat colony caregiver in Toronto noticed multiple cats coming in and out of an alleyway near where she was feeding. Over time she made contact with the home owner, a single mother in her 50s living with her adult son in subsidized housing and working a part-time professional job. Her cats had bred out of control over the years and she had approximately 40 cats and kittens. There was no active acquisition.

The intermediary offered food, cat litter and access to healthcare, and was gradually able to gain the owner’s trust. Five cats were initially sterilized and returned and 9 additional cats were then brought to the THS for sterilization. When they were found not to be healthy enough for surgery, the owner agreed to allow them to remain at the shelter for treatment. She was convinced to surrender most of them after reassurances that they would not be euthanized. Within a few months, she surrendered all but 6 or 7 cats and reported being relieved to be free of the burden of constantly caring for so many. Two years later, the cat numbers were reportedly stable.

The THS does not perform investigations and relies on partnerships to facilitate the relinquishment of hoarded animals to our care. The role of untrained community intermediaries, most of whom were involved with cat colonies or rescue groups, was notable in the THS study (above). Intermediaries discovered hoarding situations, built relationships with the hoarders and facilitated the surrender process in most cases. The THS experience demonstrates that a great deal can be achieved by using informal grassroots resources as a pathway to voluntary relinquishment.

Case Study 2. Madame X and Her 640+ Cats

In early 2017, the THS was asked to assist a Toronto rescue group wishing to transfer 90 cats from a peri-urban shelter in Quebec. The shelter was owned and operated by “Madame X,” who was also President of the Board. There were an estimated 640 cats and 15 dogs in the shelter as well as a suspected 60 cats and 14 dogs in the owner’s home on the premises.

The Quebec regulatory agency, MAPAQ, had responded to complaints about the shelter a dozen times since 2009, including 5 complaints in 2016, and had issued orders of non-compliance and instructions for improvements. Fearing animal seizures and euthanasias, the owner asked a local animal welfare agency for help. She had alienated most other local organizations and refused to work with the nearby shelters. However, she was willing to transfer cats to Ontario. The shelter’s finances were at crisis point after the mandated renovations. In late 2018, health problems further deepened the crisis.

Assistance provided was:

  • Transferring cats, as well as some rabbits and dogs, to the THS
  • Subsidizing transport when needed
  • Several site visits during which we gathered information and suggested manageable improvements
  • Provision of cat food and feral cat dens
  • Subsidizing TNR for feral cats held in the shelter

Difficulties encountered:

  • The shelter was in a different province with a different language, culture and legal framework.
  • It continued to take in animals.
  • Diseases including retrovirus infection, dermatophytosis and chronic Streptococcus equi subspecies zooepidemicus rhinosinusitis and otitis media.
  • Costs of treatment were high.
  • The organizations that initially requested help from THS soon withdrew, leaving us with multiple decision points at which to determine whether to continue helping or terminate our involvement.
  • It was extremely difficult to manage this complex situation at a distance of more than 600 km.
  • The harm reduction strategy was difficult to explain to staff, who expected resolution of the situation and were frustrated when this did not occur.

Successes in this project were:

  • The ability to work effectively through a dedicated volunteer at the source shelter.
  • Through 21 transfers (as of February 2019), reducing numbers of shelter cats from an estimated 640 to approximately 32 by the end of 2018.
  • Persuading the owner not to add new retrovirus-positive cats to an existing group of long-stay retrovirus-positive cats.
  • Through transfers, reducing the number of long-stay retrovirus-positive cats in the shelter to zero.
  • Convincing the owner to spay/neuter and release feral cats onto the property.
  • A high overall live release rate for the transferred cats. Failures were:
    • An inability, until early 2019, to help animals in the owner’s home
    • An inability to find partners close to the shelter, which was necessary for provision of adequate veterinary care and infection control
    • An inability to navigate a pathway to appropriate mental health resources
    • The lack of a mechanism by which the shelter could be closed down, despite recent amendments to animal cruelty laws in Quebec

This case illustrates many features of severe animal hoarding:

  • The tremendous, long-term suffering it causes.
  • The amplified harm of institutional hoarding, where the hoarder operates a shelter, sanctuary or rescue.
  • The perpetuation of animal hoarding through societal inaction or enabling—multiple municipalities awarded animal control contracts to this shelter and the regulator renewed its operating permit.
  • The failure of a regulatory agency to appropriately apply animal cruelty legislation.
  • The tremendous difference one intermediary can make, by providing a conduit between an animal hoarder and animal welfare organization such as the THS.

Despite the myriad difficulties, this case illustrates the benefits of a harm reduction approach in a seemingly unmanageable situation. There is a need to play the “long game” in severe animal hoarding cases and this case is a good example. Organizations that intervene should not expect quick or easy resolution and should regularly re-evaluate progress, goals and expectations.


1.  Reinisch AI. Characteristics of six recent animal hoarding cases in Manitoba. Can Vet J. 2009; 50: 1069–1073.

2.  Patronek GJ. Hoarding of animals: an under-recognized public health problem in a difficult-to-study population. Public Health Rep. 1999; 114: 81–87.

3.  Berry C, Patronek G, Lockwood R. Long-term outcomes in animal hoarding cases. Anim Law. 2005; 11: 167–194.

4.  Lockwood R. Animal hoarding: The challenge for mental health, law enforcement, and animal welfare professionals. Behav Sci Law. 2018; 36: 698–716.

5.  Campbell K. The Paradox of Animal Hoarding and the Limits of Canadian Law. 2012.

6.  Erickson P, Butters J, Walko K. CAMH and harm reduction: a background paper on its meaning and applications for substance use issues. 2002; 1–8.

7.  Davis T, Edsell-Vetter J. Rethinking hoarding intervention: MBHP’s analysis of the Hoarding Intervention and Tenancy Preservation Project. 2015.

8.  Strong S, Federico J, Banks R, et al. A collaborative model for managing animal hoarding cases. J Appl Anim Welf Sci. 2018; 19: 1–12.

9.  Colangelo L. Intervention program helps pull animal hoarders from a downward spiral. New York Daily. 2013.

10.  Brillinger C, Hall C. Coordinated Hoarding Response System Design for the City of Toronto CD22.7 Appendix 6. 2017.


Speaker Information
(click the speaker's name to view other papers and abstracts submitted by this speaker)

L. Jacobson
Toronto Humane Society
Toronto, ON, Canada

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