Animal Hoarding: Could it be a little bit more?

31. October 2012
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Messie Syndrome is widely known in Germany, things however are different when the topic "Animal Hoarding" comes up. Affected individuals hold a variety of animals in a confined space and often cannot keep up with health standards.

Every second veterinary office in Germany has already been confronted with at least one case of animal hoarding. Processing takes an average of three years. One in two of the over 500 shelters affiliated with the Animal Protection Association of Germany have had to take in animals from cases of animal hoarding.

Animal hoarders or disciples of Diogenes?

In scientific publications the term “compulsive hoarding” is predominantly used. This label describes the disorder best of all. Some of those affected collect dander, ear wax, nail cuttings and more. They pack it all neatly in bags and catalogue it as if were stamps. In German literature, the term compulsive hoarding is barely in use. Instead, the term Messie Syndrome (from English) is employed.

In English-speaking countries on the other hand this is an unknown term. Diogenes syndrome is very similar to what is called “Vermüllungsyndrom” in Germany (which translates roughly as “littering syndrome”); it is also typified by involving “shameless” neglect of the body and advanced age among those affected. The term Diogenes syndrome, also known as senile squalor syndrome, refers to the philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (391 – 323 BC). He was known for his frugality and his resistance to innovations. He is said to have ascetically resided in a dog kennel.

Profile: Mid-fifties woman

The typical hoarder is female, averages 50 years of age and collects mostly cats and dogs. Rabbits and birds are also on the regular shopping list. This profile originates from, among other sources, the interdisciplinary scientific working group Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (HARC). In 1999 the first systematic study on the subject was published in the United States. The average number of animals was 39, in 69% of cases the floor of the apartment was covered with the excrement of the animals, in a quarter of cases even the bed of hoarders. Whether this is a picture which transfers to the German hoarder is unclear. In Germany, studies carried out in this area are very rare.

Dog hero or Animal exploiters?

The motivation to keep many animals has varied grounds. Some see themselves as carers, some as noble liberators of animals. Then there’s also the chaotic breeder and the selfish exploiter.

Exaggerated carers:
  • Attempt to care for the animals
  • Cannot solve problems effectively
  • Everything builds up over their heads
  • Animals multiply (more passive, rather than active type of collector)
  • Introverted, socially isolated
  • Play down the problem (but they do not usually completely deny it)
  • Animals for him or her have a high priority (animals seen as humans)
Savior / freedom deliverer:
  • He or she sees the taking in of animals as a mission
  • Has fear of death and strictly rejects euthanasia of animals
  • Believes that he or she is the only one with whom the animals are well off
  • Strong active collection tendency, eventually the number of animals exceeds the capacity of care
  • Cannot refuse any animal
  • Avoids authority, instructions are not followed
  • Is not necessarily socially isolated
Breeder:
  • Acquires the animals with the intent to breed, exhibit and sell them
  • Over time increasingly loses track of his or her livestock, which he or she has solely for exhibition and sales purposes
  • Animals multiply further; sales don’t takes place or are only limited; the herds and flocks grow
Exploiters:
  • Animals are purchased for selfish purposes
  • The person is selfish, often narcissistic, has no feelings of guilt or sympathy (lack of empathy)
  • Appear confident
  • Can impress authorities and other people and mislead for long periods (good actors)

Mod. according to E. Deininger, Academy for Animal Welfare, Neubiberg, kleintier konkret 2010; 13 (2): 26-31

Hoarder on the run

In order to avoid prosecution, the victims simply move into another district, one for which another veterinary office is responsible. The affected persons are usually not aware that their behaviour is abnormal. This behaviour is typical of many addictions and obsessions. “In almost two thirds of cases the animals were injured, in every third case food and / or drink options were lacking”, says Dr. Vet.Sc. Tina Susan Sperling, who did her dissertation on the subject animal hoarding at the Veterinary Medicine Institute Hannover. Compulsive hoarding produces for those affected and their families considerable distress and social impairment. The most noticeable symptom of compulsive hoarding is the rank disorder that is caused by the accumulation of objects.

According to Frost and Hartl, compulsive hoarding is characterised by the following features:

  • Compulsive acquiring of things that are useless and worthless or of little value, while at the same time having the inability to discard these useless, worthless things
  • Littering of the living room so that it cannot be used properly
  • The set of symptoms causes severe distress and social impairment

Causes

Addictive disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder and the full range of neuroses can be causes of animal hoarding. Personality disorders as well, for example Borderline Personality Disorder and psychoses, schizophrenia and manic-depressive disorders. Relatively frequently found among animal collectors are age-related diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s or even ADHD.

In most cases, however, the symptoms of those affected and researched have been described along with those of OCD. The proportion of patients with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder who at the same time hoard compulsively is, depending on the study, between 18 and 40 percent. Saxena et al published the results of one PET study. In the posterior cingulate cortex of the hoarder they found decreased glucose metabolism. Compared to OCD patients without compulsive hoarding (n = 33), patients with compulsive hoarding also showed lower glucose metabolism in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

Therapy: (animal) withdrawal

Using talks, fines and animal number limits or confiscation of livestock, veterinary offices try to get the affected animal holders concerned to change their ways. In the U.S., Steketee and Frost, using the cognitive-behavioral model for compulsive hoarding from Frost and Hartl, have developed a 26 session comprehensive therapy program. The treatment lasts about six months and it is anticipated that, aside from treatment hours in the office or clinic, therapy sessions take place in the home environment of the patient. Pharmacologically speaking, the SSRI group of antidepressants have not often proven effective. In a placebo-controlled Citalopram-12-week trial with 401 hoarders, the therapy was found to be of little effect. In an open Paroxetine treatment study with 97 patients, the therapy was successful in one third of patients.

The Animal Welfare Academy has recognised the problem and sets out the following requirements:

  • The information on animal hoarding has to be more broadly disseminated among expert groups (veterinarians, veterinary officials, lawyers, psychologists, social workers).
  • The official veterinarian needs, when suspicion of animal hoarding exists, to have right of access.
  • It is necessary to have a central registry to which all veterinary offices have access and from which the information about pet owners who are noticed for violations of the Animal Welfare Act can be retrieved.
  • Research in psychology and medicine, especially in terms of treatment and prevention, is necessary.
  • In order to help the people and the animals, avenues must be created which allow sick people to be treated by professionally trained therapists.

In her dissertation, Dr. Sperling estimated the number of hoarded animals in Germany to be 52,569. These are held by only 501 hoarders. A quote posted in the newspaper Westdeutsche Zeitung: “Whoever keeps more than 100 animals may have a problem”.

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