Copyright 2000-2014 Sarah Hartwell

A cat hoarder (or cat collector) is a person who has more cats than they can cope with, but who keeps taking in more cats. Many start off with good intentions - to rescue and rehome cats - but can't bear to part with any of their cats and they can't turn cats away. Some scour the streets looking for 'strays' (or have friends who do this for them) and this has resulted in legal cases of theft where the collector takes in an owned cat and refuses to relinquish it.

Throughout this article, I've used the term 'she' because most cat hoarders are female. Male hoarders exist, and there are couples and families who are animal hoarders. It's often a familial trait. Hoarding has been recognised as a mental illness with obsessive compulsive traits. It can't be tackled unless the hoarder gets therapy to modify the hoarding behaviour.

Multi-cat Household vs Cat Hoarder

Multi-cat households have large feline "families" but their cats are disease free, neutered, socialised and get individual attention. Each cat has its own space and the cats are not overcrowded or stressed. Food and water bowls, and litter trays, are kept clean and hygienic. Cats are not cage except for medical reasons (e.g. post-surgical convalescence). There may be a smell of cat, but not an offensive smell of uncleaned pee or poop. I've visited small apartments with up to 10 indoor cats (all neutered), where there is no smell, where the cats interact happily and the owner knows each by name, knows their medical histories and can immediately spot signs of illness. Any cat that looks unwell gets prompt vet treatment.

What Is A Cat Hoarder?

A cat hoarder accumulates an excessive number of cats without the space, resources or ability to care for them properly. She rarely surrenders her animals voluntarily to anyone, especially to a humane society because some of the animals will be euthanized due to temperament or ill-health. Her inability to provide proper health care and the failure/refusal to neuter or socialize the cats makes them unhomeable. Many cat hoarders live in the middle of an indoor feral colony. They won't give up any cats until forced to do so partly because it breaks up the collection. Some hoarders don't even know how many cats they have or even if the loose cat in the yard is "one of theirs".

Cat waste accumulates in the home, but hoarders often don't notice the smell of ammonia. There may be dead cats that get put in cupboards or freezers because the hoarder can't bear to part with them or doesn't know what to do with them. When inspectors visit, the hoarder will downplay the number of cats present and may hide cats in other rooms.

A typical hoarder takes animals in, but does not adopt any out despite promises to rehomes some of them. She believes that nobody can care for them as well as she can despite the evidence of sick cats around her. This unwillingness to part with a cat includes cats that are sick, dying or dead. The hoarder won't visit a vet because of difficult questions which could result in all the animals being seized. That means the cats aren't vaccinated. Diseases spread through the overcrowded home causing chronic illness and death. Even then, a cat hoarder may hang onto the bodies. This not a rational decision, it is part of the hoarding illness.

In February 2002 a couple in Gothenburg, Sweden, resorted to living in their basement, with no electricity or running water, for several months, while their cats took over the rest of the house. Neighbours alerted health inspectors after seeing dead cats in the house. Inside the house were 3 dead and 25 live cats; there were 15 more cats in the garden. The cats were in such poor condition that they had to be destroyed. The house contained piles of cat faeces and reeked of urine that had soaked into the walls, floors and furnishings. The house was unsalvageable. The couple were banned from keeping pets and faced animal-cruelty charges. The great tragedy of animal hoarding is that animals suffer and die at the hands of people who believe they are saving the animals.

Hoarders' cats usually suffer from neglect rather than violent abuse. They may get fed the wrong things, may be infested with parasites or be disabled by untreated illnesses. The lack of violent abuse makes it hard for the public to understand that hoarders are committing cruelty. Some hoarders cultivate an image of being a cat rescuer. Animal welfare law defines cruelty as acts, omissions or neglect, which cause or permit unjustifiable physical pain, suffering or death. This includes failure to seek veterinary attention and failure to provide adequate food or water. It also covers the housing conditions e.g. the keeping of cats in small, filthy stacked cages or rabbit hutches.

Unofficial Cat Shelters, Recluses and Collectors

Many animal hoarders consider themselves unofficial adoption shelters. They claim to take in strays in order to rehome them. Some hoarders pay people to bring them cats. They claim they don't take cats to traditional shelters because of the euthanasia rate. Word gets around and people take cats to the "no kill" hoarder because even the sickest cat won't be put down. When I work at a no-kill shelter we sometimes took in a hoarders' cats. One hoarder told the newspaper that we would kill all his cats, which damaged the shelter's no-kill reputation.

Many animal hoarders have "enablers" who help them. The enablers consider themselves rescue helpers. They might go out and acquire cats for the collection or might help with care or contributions of food or money. The enablers may realise that what the hoarder is doing is wrong, but continue to help "for the sake of the cats." Enablers might describe the collector as a wonderful caring person who is dedicated to their cats while also describing the horrors of the collector's premises - their devotion is unreasoning.

Hoarder manipulate the sympathies of the community and the media, getting themselves portrayed as good samaritans and animal lovers who save animals from certain death. The rational "rescuer" understands that there are limitations to money and space and, heartbreaking as it may be, knows when to say "enough." The hoarder is incapable of making those decisions. The rescuer controls her habit, the hoarder is controlled by her habit. Hoarders are unable to come to terms with the dilemma of too many animals, too few homes.

Other hoarders are reclusive individuals who have cut themselves off from human society and prefer to live with their expanding cat colonies. They may not know how to seek help for the position they find themselves in. Sometimes the reclusiveness causes the hoarding. Sometimes the hoarding turns people into recluses. For a few, the mentality may be that of a Victorian menagerie owner who wants "one of everything" in his collection.

Hoarding is an Illness

Animal hoarding is considered a mental disorder or personality disorder like addiction or obsessive-compulsive behaviour. Hoarders aren't severely mentally ill or severely clinically depressed as they are competent in other areas of their life. They are not cat owners who have experienced a sudden financial or personal shock but don't cut back on their activities (though personal tragedy can trigger hoarding behaviour). Most are intelligent and competent in most areas of their lives, but need therapy for their addiction or compulsion. Hoarders are rarely fully cured and continue to need supervision or counselling to prevent a relapse. Courts often don't recognize this; they are there to enforce cruelty laws, ban the collector from keeping cats (which is like banning an untreated drug addict from taking drugs) and issue a fine.

A hoarder's behaviour is similar to that of drug addicts or alcoholics: self-neglect; lack of awareness of their physical living conditions; obsessively repetitious conduct; self-deception; alibis for or denial of problem behaviour; withdrawal from social interactions; avoidance of other people, except for "enablers" who support or encourage the addiction. A pathological drive, rather than n overpowering love of cats is suggested by the worst collectors' failure to acknowledge the blatant signs of neglect and suffering they inflict on the animals they collect.

Typically, a hoarder claims to love her cats but is more in love with the concept of owning that cat. They may not show any grief at losing a cat since in their peculiar mindset, their cat collection is more important than the individual.

A hoarder in our shelter's catchment area was raided three times after he amassed a large number of cats. Most were unneutered and breeding. Many were FIV/FeLV positive and had to be euthanized. The time and money spent by SPCAs could have been used for spay/neuter programmes elsewhere. The cats also occupied several pens at the no-kill shelter. The hoarder moved out of the area "through ill health" but set up hoarding cats at his new home.

Cat Hoarders - Cost to the Community and SPCAs
Cat Hoarder - How Things Spirals out of Control