Animal Hoarding: The Psychology Behind the "Cat Lady" Stereotype

The Difference Between Collecting and Hoarding

Whether it's books or cats, if you have a lot it may (or may not) signify a problem.
Whether it's books or cats, if you have a lot it may (or may not) signify a problem. Larisa Komarova / EyeEm / Getty Images

If you have a lot of cats or books or shoes, it's possible you suffer from compulsive hoarding disorder. It's also possible you're completely healthy and simply have a collection. Being a compulsive hoarder negatively affects the life of the affected person and those around him or her. Fortunately, help is available. Learn what causes hoarding, how it's diagnosed, and how it's treated.

What Exactly Is Compulsive Hoarding?

MissKadri / Getty Images

Compulsive hoarding occurs when a person acquires an excessive number of animals or objects and is unwilling to part with them. The behavior affects family members and friends as well as the hoarder, as it can pose an economic burden, emotional distress, and health risks. In some cases, hoarders are aware their behavior is irrational and unhealthy, yet the stress of discarding the items or objects is too great for them to fix the situation. In other cases, a hoarder doesn't recognize their collection is a problem. Ironically, the clutter caused by hoarding often worsens the sufferer's anxiety or depression.

How Many Cats Does It Take to Be a Crazy Cat Lady?

You can have a lot of cats without being an animal hoarder.
You can have a lot of cats without being an animal hoarder. Melanie Langer / EyeEm / Getty Images

​To understand the distinction between compulsive hoarding and collecting, consider the "crazy cat lady." According to the stereotype, the crazy cat lady has a lot of cats (more than two or three) and keeps to herself. Is this the description of an animal hoarder? Since many people fit the stereotype, thankfully the answer is no.

Like the stereotypical cat lady, an animal hoarder keeps a higher than usual number of animals. Like the stereotype, a hoarder deeply cares for each cat and loathes letting any animal go. Unlike the stereotype, a hoarder is unable to properly house or care for the animals, resulting in health and sanitation concerns.

So, the distinction between "cat lady" and animal hoarder is not about the number of cats, but whether that number of animals has a negative impact on human and feline well-being. An example of a cat lady who was not a hoarder was a Canadian woman who had 100 well-fed, spayed and neutered, vaccinated cats.

Why Do People Hoard?

Example of animal hoarding of rabbits.
Example of animal hoarding of rabbits. Stefan Körner

Why do animal hoarders have so many animals? The typical animal hoarder has a deep emotional attachment to animals. A hoarder may believe the animals would not survive if they weren't taken in. Having the animals around adds a feeling of security. Animal hoarders may be accused of animal cruelty, yet cruelty is not their intention. Similarly, a hoarder of books typically cherishes books and wants to preserve them. A hoarder of "freebies" typically hates to let anything go to waste.

What sets hoarders apart from the non-hoarding populace is a mixture of neurochemistry and environmental factors.

  • Damage to the brain or unusual serotonin levels can lead to hoarding behavior.
  • People raised in cluttered environments or chaotic households tend to hoard.
  • In the case of animal hoarding, the behavior may be an attachment disorder, thought to be caused by a poor parent-child relationship. The hoarder may more easily form close bonds with animals rather than people.
  • Hoarding seems to be strongly connected to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and is sometimes considered a type of OCD.
  • Hoarders often have difficulty organizing.
  • Many hoarders collect items in response to anxiety or trauma as a coping mechanism.

Symptoms and Diagnosis of Hoarding

A collection can turn into a hoard if possessions don't get organized.
A collection can turn into a hoard if possessions don't get organized. Tim Macpherson / Getty Images

Symptoms of animal hoarding are fairly obvious. In addition to a large number of animals, there are signs of inadequate nutrition, veterinary care, and sanitation. Yet, the hoarder may believe the care is adequate and be loath to give any animals away, even to good homes.

It's the same with other types of hoarding, whether the objects are books, clothes, shoes, craft items, etc. A collector keeps items, typically organizes them, and sometimes parts with them. A hoarder continues to accumulate items way beyond the point of maintaining them. The hoard overflows into other areas. While a pack rat may simply need help getting the clutter under control, a hoarder feels physical distress when items are removed.

Hoarding behavior is not rare. Experts estimate between 2 percent and 5 percent of adults suffer from the disorder. Psychologists only defined compulsive hoarding as a mental disorder in the 5th edition of the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" (DSM) in 2013, so the medical description of symptoms remains debated. The DSM criteria for diagnosing hoarding disorder include:

  • Persistent difficulty parting with possessions, regardless of value.
  • Accumulation of a large number of possessions such that the home or work space becomes too cluttered to use.
  • Symptoms impair social or occupational functioning or make the environment unsafe.
  • The hoarding is not attributable to any other mental disorder.

Treating Hoarding Behavior

Group therapy helps some hoarders control the disorder.
Group therapy helps some hoarders control the disorder. Tom Merton / Getty Images

If you or someone you know is a hoarder, you have options to address the problem. The two main forms of treatment for hoarding disorder are counseling and medicine.

Hoarders who are anxious, depressed, or suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder may benefit from medication. Usually tricyclic antidepressant clomipramine and SSRI drugs help control hoarding tendencies. Paroxetine (Paxil) has FDA approval to treat compulsive hoarding. However, the drugs control symptoms but do not cure hoarding, so they are combined with counseling to address underlying causes of the disorder.

To an outsider, it might seem like the simplest solution to hoarding would be to throw everything out. Most experts agree this is unlikely to help and may even worsen the condition. Instead, the most common approach is to use cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to help a hoarder understand why he or she hoards, start to declutter, learn relaxation skills and better coping methods, and improve organization skills. Group therapy may help a hoarder reduce social anxiety about the behavior.

What Can You Do to Help?

Hoarders often benefit from help.
Hoarders often benefit from help. Maskot / Getty Images

Hoarding behavior becomes more likely as a person ages, particularly as it becomes harder to clean, care for a home, and remove waste. Help from a friend or family member, a little at a time, can help get a hoard under control and keep a person accountable to make a permanent change.

If you are a hoarder:

  • Recognize you have a problem, even if this means accepting a hard truth from a friend, family member, or neighbor.
  • Set attainable goals to get the hoard under control. Too many cats? Contact a local rescue group and see if they can help re-home some. Too many clothes? Donate them. Too many books? Consider an online auction to connect them with readers who will value them.
  • Ask for and (graciously) accept help. To ease your mind, set clear goals for each "help session." As you make progress, the task will seem less insurmountable, while the extra space will reduce stress.
  • Consider getting professional help. Because compulsive hoarding is recognized as a mental illness, treatment is covered under insurance plans.

If you want to help a hoarder:

  • Offer to help. Recognize it will be hard for a hoarder to let any possession go. If you can, find it a new home rather than throw it away. Consider donating clothes, help set up auctions for items that have actual value, or find a home for a pet.
  • Don't expect to solve the problem overnight. Even after the hoard is gone, the underlying behavior remains. Look for triggers that lead to acquisition and help find another way to fill the psychological need.

References

  • Patronek, Gary J. "Animal hoarding: its roots and recognition." Veterinary Medicine 101.8 (2006): 520.
  • Pertusa A., Frost R.O., Fullana M. A., Samuels J., Steketee G., Tolin D., Saxena S., Leckman J.F., Mataix-Cols D. (2010). "Refining the boundaries of compulsive hoarding: A review". Clinical Psychology Review. 30: 371–386. 
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Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Animal Hoarding: The Psychology Behind the "Cat Lady" Stereotype." ThoughtCo, Feb. 5, 2018, thoughtco.com/animal-hoarding-definition-4157862. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2018, February 5). Animal Hoarding: The Psychology Behind the "Cat Lady" Stereotype. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/animal-hoarding-definition-4157862 Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Animal Hoarding: The Psychology Behind the "Cat Lady" Stereotype." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/animal-hoarding-definition-4157862 (accessed April 21, 2018).