Copyright 2000-2014, Sarah Hartwell

A Typical Hoarder Profile

Thanks to TV shows about hoarders, the general public is becoming more aware of the problem of cat hoarders. Despite the stereotypes, animal hoarders, and their suffering collection, can go completely unnoticed for long periods. Hoarders may be reclusive, or be shunned by others because of their personal odour. Neighbours mostly only aware of the nuisance and smell, and sometimes aware of hoarders "stealing" cats. In my area there was "Mad Sal" who "rescued" any number of neighbour's cats. Most towns have someone who harbours and encourages hordes of stray cats, but who provides a minimal standard of care. These people are often considered eccentric, but well-meaning and harmless. Neighbours may be unaware of the level of neglect, disease and irrational behaviour behind closed doors. Very occasionally, a previously respected breeder's establishment and behaviour may deteriorate to the point of them being classed as a hoarder; sadly this causes all breeders to be viewed with suspicion.

A hoarding couple had more than 100 sick and starving cats in their home. Several large dustbins were filled with excrement and debris. The house was condemned as unfit for habitation due to the urine and diarrhoea which had seeped into floors, through ceilings and into walls. The soft furnishings were rotting from being urine-soaked. The couple also owned a well-furnished second house, but they amassed 150 cats sharing only 2 or 3 litter trays. The cats had fouled every available surface; in some places there were piles of dried excrement several inches deep. The furnishing and wooden floors began to rot. The couple soaked the floors with bleach solution, adding to the wet rot. This house was also condemned and the cats (all feral and most were diseased) were removed, but the couple continued to live there and continued to collect cats.

A Stereotypical Cat Hoarder Scenario

The hoarder's house is often run down with a strong odour coming from it: a mix of faeces, rotten food, sour milk, ammonia and tom cat pee. The neighbours may describe the occupant as a crazy old person or cat-loving recluse. On the few occasions they see the occupant s/he is carrying cans of cheap cat food or dog food (dog food being cheaper but nutritionally inadequate for cats). She smells the same as her home. Neighbours have put up tall fences to block out the sight and smell and to keep out vermin. The hoarder's garden is untended and often strewn with spoiled furnishings from inside the house. There is evidence of rats attracted to stale cat food and garbage. There may be cats outdoors; they are thin and sickly, with respiratory and eye infections. They are practically feral and depend on the hoarder for food. In the garden there are are trays of stale or maggoty cat food and piles of empty food cans. The cats go in and out the house through a broken or permanently open kitchen window. The cats have visible illnesses and injuries, but are never treated by a vet.

Indoors, the hoarder may keep her favourites in crates, hutches or bird cages, but allows the rest to mix freely and breed, though most of the kittens succumb to illness early on. There may be 2 or 3 overflowing litter trays or the hoarder may have given up and let the cats mess in the kitchen sink, shower tray or bathtub, or simply on the floor and furnishings.

The hoarder's cats become ill and depressed and scruffy. Sometimes the collector forgets to provide food and water or lets the food to become stale. Hoarders may feed their cats on cheap dog food or scraps which leads to malnutrition. The sickly cats stop drinking and eating. Their deaths are seen as natural since the hoarder doesn't believe in euthanasia. They are quickly replaced. Inspection by the public health dept finds cat bodies in the deep freeze or mummified in the general clutter. When the cats are removed by humane societies, the hoarder becomes hysterical because some of the cats will be put down.

So far, the hoarder has committed several animal welfare offences (acts and omissions which constitute cruelty and neglect) and some public health offences. She may be breaking the terms of a previous court ruling limiting her to only 3 or 4 cats (the terms may vary). Most of her cats will prove to ill or wild to rehome and will be destroyed. Before passing sentence, the courts need to assess the collector's mental state, but they cannot order a hoarder (or addict) to get treatment so society, the Public Health Dept and Animal Societies continue to tackle hoarding situations because the root cause of mental illness doesn't get treated.

The hoarder seemingly cannot comprehend:

- why humane societies are upset that 100 cats (and growing!) spend their lives in just 1100 square foot.
- why it's wrong to keep cats in piled up bird cages and rabbit hutches both indoors and outdoors.
- why 10 litter trays (changed weekly) between 100 cats is not sufficient.
- that the cats are stressed despite spraying.
- that the reason the cats don't is because they are too ill or depressed to fight.
- that there are health dangers in spite of dying kittens around the place.
- that a simple illness becomes a deadly epidemic when cats are overcrowded and already unwell.
- that cats are hiding and dying and that kittens are being eaten.

Mopping Up The Mess

Classic cat hoarders hoard other things as well. Their hoard of “stuff” may be covered in cat faeces or urine. Their animal hoard gets discovered by Social Services or the Public Health Department following neighbours’ complaints of squalor and vermin. Sometimes a hoarder is uncovered because she "adopts" (steals and imprisons) an owned cat and the rightful owner takes legal action to recover her pet. Hoarders in rural areas are harder to detect and many cats will suffer neglect undetected at the hands of the hoarder. By the time the authorities take any action, many of the cats are beyond help due to chronic illness, poor socialisation, chronic neglect or abnormalities due to inbreeding.

In some cases cats could be saved if there were finances and shelter spaces available. The overpopulation situation is such that shelters are already full to overflowing and simply cannot afford to take in, medicate and neuter so many cats at once. The medical treatment alone can run into hundreds of pounds and there is no guarantee that the cat doesn’t have an underlying condition such as FIP. Even if the cat is healthy or can be restored to health, it may be traumatized, aggressive, neurotic or effectively feral having never interacted with humans. A British TV program showed animal welfare officers removing 20+ cats from a single upstairs flat (small apartment); these were euthanized immediately because they were ferals. Of the kittens, some lost eyes due to untreated conjunctivitis and some were euthanized having lost both eyes to the infection. The collector had effectively ended up with an indoor colony of wildcats which were diseased and breeding.

The Cost To The Community

Hoarders cost communities, taxpayers and animal welfare organisations a great deal in terms of legal fees and other costs such as cleaning up a hoard and rehousing the hoarder. Without therapy, the hoarder will continue to collect cats. Laws don't stop hoarders because hoarders are like drug addicts and are unable to comply. They conceal their habit. The only solution is counselling for their mental/personality problem followed by mandatory supervision. Legislators find it cheaper to pass laws and destroy "extra" cats; treating the symptom not the cause.

In the US, laws are being introduced to limit the number of cats which may be owned. Such laws are already in force in parts of Australia in an attempt to reduce the cat population. There is a risk that the laws will punish responsible cat owners and breeders, rescuers, and humane organizations. In addition, the laws limit the number of good homes available for those organizations to place cats in because the cat would be "one over the limit" for the household. What is needed is a common sense approach, perhaps multi-cat household could apply for licences in order to keep more than the usual maximum quota of cats.

SPCAs Are Vilified

When an SPCA is called into a collector situation, they are told, "I wanted to save their lives," or "I was afraid that if I took them to the shelter, they would be killed." It is hard for the animal welfare worker to reconcile these statements with the reality of the hoarder's home. The hoarder gives the same line to journalists who glorify the "rescuer's" attempts to save the cats. The tales of the devoted cat carer bear little or no relation to the gruesome conditions the collectors' cats must endure. Worse, such stories encourage collectors and can perpetuate the cycle of high density neglect. The SPCA becomes the villain of the piece - confiscating the cats and having them all destroyed. No matter that the cats were diseased beyond help, it is the SPCA who have condemned them, not the collector.

What can an already overworked shelter do when confronted with a large number of poorly socialised, diseased, inbred, possibly neurotic and mostly unneutered cats? Many will be beyond help, possibly already dying, and must be euthanized. The hoarder announces "I told you they'll be put to sleep!" Some will recover with extensive and expensive medical treatment. Some have severe behavioural issues and cannot be homed. Some are effectively feral but have lived indoors so they can't go to a feral-friendly outdoor location. Trying to salvage cats from a hoarding situation means an equal number of friendly, healthy and neutered pet cats are euthanized because the shelter has no more room.

At the same time, the newspapers may run tales of the victimized owner whose cats were seized and killed by the big bad authorities. They'll print a photo of the collector cuddling a healthy cat that is destined for a life of neglect in the hoarder's home. During the 21st century, greater awareness of hoarders via the media has made the public more aware of the reality.

I've seen the vilification first-hand when an overrun Chinchilla Persian owner (with 30+ inbred unneutered cats all traceable to a single Chinchilla Persian queen) ran the "they'll all be killed" line to the press. In that case the cats were all healthy and friendly, but the population was still rising and the owner was unemployed. He was allowed to keep several after they were neutered. Every single cat from the household was found a home via the shelter and a Persian rescue society, but for weeks the shelter was vilified despite the newspaper printing a correction and also a retraction the following week. This can impact support and donations.

Cat Hoarders & How to identify Them
Cat Hoarder - How Things Spirals out of Control