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  5. What is animal hoarding and why is it harmful to animals?

What is animal hoarding and why is it harmful to animals?

Animal hoarding, although recognised by human and animal services, is generally poorly understood in terms of its prevalence, causes, influencing factors and response to intervention. However, it is an important issue which results in the suffering, sometimes extreme, of many animals and causing strain on animal welfare agencies. Furthermore, those responsible often repeat hoarding behaviour despite affected animals being removed.

What is animal hoarding?

Animal hoarding can be described as where an individual keeps a large number of animals but fails to provide adequate care and fails to recognise the suffering of the animals due to the lack of care.

Typically, hoarded animals suffer from;

  • untreated diseases and other health conditions, which if left untreated can cause death;
  • injuries, often from fighting;
  • poor nutrition and even death from starvation and
  • mental distress (e.g. fear, anxiety and frustration).

Animal numbers keep increasing as the hoarded animals are usually not desexed and breed indiscriminately. The individuals responsible fail to recognise what is happening so they deny that the animals are neglected and suffering, which in turn makes it difficult to intervene either to rescue the animals or provide appropriate human services support. Hoarded animals are often forced to endure horrendous conditions where they are cramped together in small spaces, often living in their own excrement. These unsanitary conditions create human and public health risks to anyone visiting or residing at or near the property. This can lead to the spread of zoonotic diseases (diseases which can be transferred from animals to humans) as well as bites and scratches from sick or frightened animals and the proliferation of vermin because of the unsanitary conditions. In this respect, animal hoarding is a problem that typifies the One Health and One Welfare concepts because it impacts on the health and welfare of animals and people, as well as the health of the environment [1].

The American Psychiatric Association recognises animal hoarding as a subset of hoarding disorder as outlined in the association’s manual which sets out mental health diagnoses [2]. This professional recognition is helpful as it enables human health services to play a vital role in dealing with these cases. Without appropriate treatment and support to resolve underlying psychological disorders, these individuals continue to repeat the same cycle of behaviour. Some hoarders are overwhelmed caregivers or rescuers, who initially had good intentions to save animals but soon become unable to provide sufficient care, as numbers increase through unplanned breeding or continued collection of stray animals [1]. However, more severe forms of animal hoarding are recognised with some hoarders classified with anti-social personality disorders. Animal hoarding may or may not be associated with object hoarding, with the latter generally being more common. However, animal hoarding is commonly associated with squalor (unsanitary conditions posing significant human health and safety risks).

Cat Hoarding
Hoarded animals are kept in overcrowded and filthy conditions. Image used with permission.

How are animals affected?

Different animal species may be acquired by hoarders but most studies in Australia have found cats to be the most common species affected [3, 4]. This might be explained by cats being relatively easy and cheap to acquire and their breeding cycle is faster than dogs, including kittens reaching breeding age by 16 weeks. Other animals may also be subjected to hoarding including rodents, birds, dogs, horses, farm animals and even wildlife.

The main problems observed include confined and grossly inadequate housing, poor nutrition, and even starvation, poor hygiene, failure to desex, lack of enrichment and health care. These problems are often so severe that the animals are unable to be rehabilitated and rehomed. These impacts are described below.

  • Housing – Animals may be contained indoors, often confined to one room, or kept in a yard, whilst others are kept in cages or crates. Confinement for long periods causes physical problems due to lack of exercise, as well as mental stress created from boredom and frustration. In cases where multiple animals are housed together, there can be competition for food and water with weaker or more timid animals being unable to escape being bullied or attacked by other animals. Other impacts include the risk of heat or cold stress where animals are not provided with appropriate shelter. Further injuries may arise where animals are forced to lay on hard surfaces without bedding. Exposure to unnatural lighting including extended periods of darkness or conversely continuous lighting can also adversely affect welfare.
  • Nutrition – A common consequence affecting hoarded animals is starvation due to insufficient or poor quality feed being provided. Over a period of time, animals will either starve to death or die from disease, due to their weakened state, as they are unable to fight infections. Thirst leading to dehydration is also reported. In addition to lack of appropriate feed, poor hygiene can result in diseases arising from feed being contaminated, especially if feed bowls are not cleaned regularly or the feed is thrown on the ground.
  • Hygiene – Where animals are housed in cramped conditions in pens or cages, they are forced to toilet in their living space. This leads to a build-up of faeces and urine which can cause disease, scalding of the skin, matting of the hair/fur and may attract flies, ants and cockroaches. Ammonia levels can be quite high in areas which are not well ventilated and are occupied by many animals; this causes painful eye irritation and respiratory problems. One Australian study reported that, in 75% of hoarding properties investigated, the conditions were categorised as being filthy, including some properties having dead animals [1]. In these circumstances, it is often referred to as severe domestic squalor, which may be not only due to retaining an excessive number of animals but also a lack of hygiene and cleanliness, where rubbish and waste is allowed to accumulate.
  • Health care – In most cases, animals are not provided with adequate regular veterinary care, or given treatment for disease or injury. This leads to many animals suffering for prolonged periods due to painful injuries, diseases or other conditions such as severe matting of the fur, ear infections or overgrown nails. Matted and dirty fur can attract blowflies so the animals can become fly blown, which is an extremely painful and debilitating condition. In addition, animals are rarely desexed, vaccinated or given flea, tick or worm treatments.

How can animals be protected from hoarding?

The key to prevent animals from suffering due to hoarding, is for relevant agencies to work together to identify cases early, to intervene quickly and to provide support to hoarders to prevent recurrence. With local government, community and mental health services, and animal welfare agencies developing processes to quickly and effectively deal with animal hoarding cases, many thousands of animals can be spared significant suffering. South Australia has attempted to achieve this through the promotion of guidelines released in 2013 called ‘A foot in the door’ – Stepping towards solutions to resolve incidents of severe domestic squalor in South Australia [5]. This initiative aims to integrate the work of key relevant agencies by nominating a lead agency to coordinate activities to address severe domestic squalor, including animal hoarding.

Wherever possible, the RSPCA works with animal hoarders to resolve the problem including encouraging surrender of animals for care and treatment. In cases, where the owner is not cooperative, inspectors can legally remove animals consistent with the relevant state law. Animal welfare laws also allow hoarders to be prosecuted, which is mainly done to enable an animal prohibition order to be made by the court to prevent a recurrence. However, it is not always possible to prosecute animal hoarders, due to various complicating factors, and unless they are convicted, a prohibition order cannot be put in place, to prevent them from owning further animals. This is problematic for animal welfare inspectors because they require a welfare complaint to revisit the property to check on the welfare of all newly acquired animals.

Although current animal welfare laws do not specify animal hoarding as an offence, including such an offence may improve the legal protection of animals subjected to hoarding. Other considerations which may help reduce the welfare impacts of animal hoarding include provisions for early intervention, early rehoming of effected animals (if possible), cross-reporting between human and animal services (state and national), mandating psychological treatment for hoarders, checking compliance with court orders and restrictions on future animal ownership.

More research and resources are needed to gain a better understanding of the extent and nature of animal hoarding in Australia, as our current knowledge is inadequate. This in turn would assist in developing effective strategies to prevent and resolve animal hoarding.


[1] Elliott R, Snowdon J, Halliday G et al (2018) Characteristics of animal hoarding cases referred to the RSPCA in New South Wales, Australia. Australian Veterinary Journal 97(5):149-156.

[2] Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (2013) 5th edition. American Psychiatric Association.

[3] Joffe M, O’Shannessy D, Dhand NK et al (2014) Characteristics of persons convicted for offences relating to animal hoarding in New South Wales. Australian Veterinary Journal 92(10):369-375.

[4] Ockenden EM, De Groef B, Marston L (2014) Animal hoarding in Victoria, Australia: an exploratory study. Anthrozoos 27:33-47.

[5] A Foot in the Door – Stepping towards solutions to resolve incidents of severe domestic squalor in South Australia (2013) South Australian Government.

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Updated on July 7, 2020
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