Rescue Organization or Animal Hoarder?

by Dr. Becker

Animal hoarding occurs when a person accumulates more animals than he or she can care for. The animals suffer both physical and emotional neglect, as even their basic needs — adequate nutrition, sanitation, shelter and veterinary care — are not met.

It’s estimated that there are 900 to 2,000 new cases of animal hoarding in the U.S. each year, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).1 To be clear, owning an unusually large number of animals is not the only criteria to be considered an animal hoarder.

The Difference Between Owning a Lot of Pets and Being an Animal Hoarder
Hoarding is considered to be a psychiatric disorder, and being an animal hoarder is different than, say, rescuing a large number of pets that you can adequately care for. Signs of an animal hoarding situation include:

An abundance of animals, to the extent that you may lose track of how many you have A home in deteriorated condition, including broken furniture, holes in walls or flooring, extreme clutter and more
A dirty environment, including dried feces, urine, vomit and a smell of ammonia Animals are in poor health, emaciated, lethargic and not well-socialized
Fleas and vermin may be present The owner is often socially isolated and often neglects self-care
The owner believes all the animals are happy and healthy

Some Animal Hoarders Pose as Rescue Groups
Stories of dogs and cats being hoarded commonly make news headlines, but virtually any type of animal can become a hoarding victim. Cases have included not only dogs and cats but also reptiles, birds, farm animals and more.
There are even cases of animal hoarders trying to claim they are rescue groups. According to ASPCA:

“Research shows many hoarders are beginning to set themselves up as ‘rescue shelters,’ complete with non-profit status. They may appear to be sensible people, persuasively conveying their love for animals and readiness to take those who are sick and with special needs.”

There are some telltale signs, however, that reveal when a “rescue group” is actually an animal hoarder, including:

Unwilling to let visitors see where animals are kept Does not reveal how many animals are in its care
Does not make efforts to find new homes for the animals Continues to take in more animals even when existing animals are in poor health and unsanitary environments
Views legitimate rescue groups as the enemy May pick up rescued animals at an ambiguous location (like a parking lot) as opposed to at a credible facility

Study Reveals Abnormal Behavioral Characteristics of Hoarded Dogs
When animals are rescued from hoarding situations, they’re often malnourished and in poor health. In the best-case scenario, the animals are nursed back to health, physically, and then adopted into loving homes. However, emotional scars often linger.

Anecdotally, many people who have adopted a dog who was rescued from a hoarding situation report abnormal behaviors. A recent study published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science compared the behaviors of formerly hoarded dogs with typical pet dogs and revealed some distinct differences.

The study included more than 11,000 dogs and revealed dogs removed from hoarding situations showed a wide variety of abnormal behaviors. In comparison to the typical pet dogs, the previously hoarded dogs were more likely to display:

Fear (stranger-directed, dog-directed and non-social) Sensitivity to touch
Attachment and attention-seeking behaviors Separation-related behaviors
Urination and defecation when left alone Repetitive behaviors

The previously hoarded dogs were less likely to display:

Aggression toward strangers or other dogs Trainability
Chasing small animals Excitability
Energy Dog rivalry
Persistent barking Rolling in foul-smelling material

Former Hoarding Dogs May Need to Be Rehabilitated
If you adopt a dog that was previously in a hoarding situation, recognize ahead of time that he’s going to come along with some emotional baggage. It’s to be expected considering what he’s been through. Some such dogs are lucky enough to spend time in a professional rehabilitation center before moving on to their forever homes.

The ASPCA’s Behavioral Rehabilitation Center at St. Hubert’s, for instance, opened in 2013 and was described as “the first-ever facility dedicated strictly to providing behavioral rehabilitation to canine victims of cruelty, such as those confiscated from puppy mills and hoarding cases.”

Some centers are designed with unique features, such as soundproofing, light dimmers and calming scents and music, designed to help traumatized dogs feel safe. The dogs work closely with trainers for six to eight weeks, with some requiring a more lengthy or shorter stay, depending on their individual situation. “Graduates” of the centers will return to partner shelters for placement, and ongoing therapy will be provided as needed.

If you’ve adopted a dog straight from a hoarding situation, you may want to seek the help of a professional canine rehabilitation specialist or positive reinforcement trainer who can work with you and your dog on individual issues like separation anxiety or submissive urination.

However, you can also take steps to help him regain his trust in people and, specifically, to learn that he can trust you. You’ll want to make your home feel like a calming, safe place for your dog. Establish regular routines for feeding, playtime, cuddle time and housetraining. Also, go out of your way to avoid exposing your dog to loud noises or yelling, Let your dog progress at his own pace; do not force him into situations that make him uncomfortable.

In time, as your dog realizes that his basic needs are being met and exceeded, his true personality will likely come out and he’ll be able to enjoy being a dog again.

Do You Know an Animal Hoarder?
If you think you know someone who is an animal hoarder, the first step to help the animals is making a call to your local humane society, police department, animal welfare organization or even a local veterinarian. They may be able to send someone out to assess the situation and, if not, may direct you to the appropriate agency that can help.

ASPCA recommends contacting social service groups, such as a mental health agency, health department or adult protective services, which may also be productive, especially if the animal hoarder is suffering from additional mental health issues or is elderly and otherwise socially isolated.

If you are in contact with the animal hoarder, try to reassure him or her that getting help will be best for the animals and that urgent action is needed or the animals may die. You can volunteer to help remove some of the animals from the home, foster them, or even simply take them for walks or help clean cages at your local shelter.

In some cases, animals may be returned to the home of an animal hoarder. In this case, you may volunteer to help the person properly care for the animals, and ensure any remaining animals get proper veterinary care when needed.