During the course of my private practice, I have had a number of sandwich generation adults (those fulfilling the caretaking role for both their children and their aging parents) express frustration and concern in relation to parents who are compulsively hoarding cats or dogs.
Last November, my husband and I adopted Annabel Leigh from Atlanta Pet Rescue (a one-year-old, 13-pound canine bundle of joy). Annabel was rescued from a trailer in Alabama where she fought hard, along with 27 other dogs, to survive. None had ever been outside. This is tragic - a slow and painful path to death.
Animal hoarding is one variant of obsessive-compulsive disorder evident in those keeping higher than usual numbers of pets without the ability to house or care for them properly while, at the same time, vehemently denying their inability to do so.
Two major features present in animal hoarding and obsessive-compulsive disorder - an overwhelming sense of responsibility for preventing harm and engaging in unrealistic actions to prevent it.
Studies by the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium show that dead or sick animals are found in 80 percent of the cases, and 60 percent of the time the hoarder would not acknowledge the problem. In 70 percent of the cases, animal feces and urine accumulated in living areas, and in 25 percent of cases hoarders' beds were soiled with animal waste.
Ironically, hoarders' justifications for their behavior include intense love of animals, feelings that their animals are surrogate children and the belief that no one else would or could take care of them. Most of those studied collect dogs or cats: men more often collected dogs, and women more often collected cats. Over two-thirds are women, with 76 percent of them being unmarried, widowed or divorced, and over half being 60 years of age or older. Social isolation was common but appeared to result from the hoarding behavior rather than causing it. Most reported that collecting started in childhood and most collected other items as well. Upwards of 2000 new cases of animal hoarding are estimated per year in the U.S.
To date, little research has been done on effective treatment and what exists suggests that hoarders may be particularly resistant to both psychotherapy and medication such that a significant number of them are eventually institutionalized or placed under protective care, steadfastly denying their inability to provide adequate food, water, sanitation and veterinary care to the animals as well as the negative impact on their own health and well-being - clearly a lose-lose situation.
It is, therefore, particularly comforting to know that the ASPCA provides a "Hoarding Prevention Team" which works compassionately but firmly with hoarders to help them attain a healthy and manageable number of pets. They can be reached at (212) 86-7700 or their Web site www.aspca.org.
Peggy Nolen is a licensed professional counselor in Covington. She specializes in anxiety, depression, problems with drugs and alcohol and recovery from traumatic experience. She can be reached at (770) 314-5924.