FRIDAY, March 25 (HealthDay News) -- A small army of animal welfare workers spent nearly 10 hours removing hundreds of sick and dying animals from a rural North Carolina property in one of the United States' larger animal-hoarding cases.
More than 400 animals -- 17 species in all, ranging from ducks and rabbits to dogs and cats -- had been living in squalor with a middle-aged couple claiming to be animal rescuers. Yet these would-be saviors provided little, if any, food, water, or medical care.
"Every section of the property inspected was just more deplorable and just more hideous than the last one," recalled Shelley Swaim, an animal welfare inspector for the state, who was on the scene that day three years ago.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of cases of animal hoarding are believed to occur each year throughout the nation. While hoarders tend to be women, the compulsion to possess large numbers of animals beyond the ability to properly care for them crosses all age, gender, professional and financial boundaries.
Some of these hoarders suffer from significant mental health issues, and the phenomenon is as much a people problem as a pet problem.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund, a California-based animal rights law organization, believes hoarding is the number-one crisis facing companion animals today because of the sheer number of animals affected (an estimated 250,000 annually) and the degree and duration of their suffering.
What separates animal hoarding from other types of cruelty is that the chronic neglect usually is unintentional. The vast majority of hoarders love the animals and try to care for them, but often have very limited insight into the nature and extent of their problem, explained hoarding expert Gail Steketee, a professor and dean at Boston University School of Social Work.
"This is one of the more disturbing aspects of their behavior," she said. "They can look at a group of animals who are sick and emaciated and declare that they are taking good care of them."
While this might be a defensive response to threats made by authorities to remove the animals, she said it seems more deeply rooted. "Once the number of animals has overwhelmed their ability to provide adequate food, shelter and veterinary care, they cannot admit the need for help," said Steketee.
Steketee and colleagues recently interviewed animal hoarders for a study and found that many came from chaotic childhood environments and had problems with early attachment experiences with the parental figures in their lives. They also had more mental health concerns and dysfunctional relationships as adults.
"It is a sad situation because they began with the best of intentions and have failed to meet these," said Steketee. "They deserve our concern, not our wrath, unless they are among the few who are actively cruel toward animals."
Some social workers and veterinarians hope the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, slated for release in May 2013, will include an entry on hoarding. Recognition as a distinct disorder in this reference book will give the mental health community a better understanding of the problem and spur more treatment and resources, these advocates say.
With millions of unwanted pets nationwide, amassing large numbers of dogs, cats, and other sentient creatures isn't difficult. Experts say some hoarders develop a reputation as someone who will accept unwanted pets, or the animals they already own breed year after year. Others actively seek animals from shelters and individuals by perusing print and online classified ads and adoption websites.
Some hoarders also create websites to masquerade as reputable rescue organizations in order to obtain animals, said Gary Patronek, veterinarian and vice president for animal welfare at the Animal Rescue League of Boston.
"There are cases where people are engaging in very formal, large scale efforts and they're actively recruiting to get more and more animals in, when they can't care for the ones they've got, so that's a disturbing trend," Patronek added.
To combat the problem of animal hoarding, a few communities, including Kern County, Calif., and Lee County, Fla., have established task forces to bring together the necessary agencies, including animal and child protection organizations, law enforcement, social services and public health departments.
Trained disaster response teams, run by at least four national animal welfare organizations, are often dispatched to hoarding cases to assist in the rescue and rehabilitation of animals.
Still, many communities struggle to handle these very complicated cases, said Patronek.
"If someone suspects children are not being cared for properly, we certainly don't wait until they're living in absolute filth, or starving, or sick with disease or dying before we go in and do something," Patronek said.
But, that's what happens to animals, he points out, because cruelty laws are crafted to punish people for committing crimes. So if a hoarder is unwilling to co-operate, he said, authorities must wait until a crime takes place, meaning the animals are abused enough or neglected enough, before taking action.
"None of the laws were written to really address this kind of problematic behavior where people accumulate vastly more animals than they have the capacity to care for," he said.
For tips on caring for pets, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
SOURCES: Shelley Swaim, animal welfare inspector, North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, Veterinary Division; Gail Steketee, Ph.D., professor and dean, Boston University School of Social Work; Gary Patronek, V.M.D., Ph.D., veterinarian and vice president for animal welfare and new program development, Animal Rescue League of Boston
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