Animal hoarding: Instances or awareness increasing?

Katrina Keywood, animal caretaker at the Shenandoah County Animal Shelter holds Brenda Bea, who was removed from a house in December that contained 25 cats and one dog. Shelter staff and rescue groups say that incidents of this nature put a strain on the animal care capabilities of the area. Nathan Budryk/Daily

Area police departments have made at least five seizures of significant numbers of animals from residences over the past several months. In most cases, law enforcement officials decided the animals were either receiving inadequate care, had been neglected or were living in conditions not conducive to their well being.

This phenomenon is not a new one, although one diagnosis that could potentially explain it, is. Dr. Sherief El-Mallah, a psychiatrist with the Northwest Community Services Board, said that the medical and scientific community’s understanding of hoarding, both involving animals and possessions, is incomplete and evolving.

El-Mallah specializes in general psychiatry and child/adolescent psychiatry. While not an expert in hoarding and obsessive compulsive disorder, to which hoarding is often linked, El-Mallah researched the topic for the purpose of this interview.

“Hoarding and obsessive compulsive disorder go along together a lot of times and a lot of people with obsessive compulsive disorder also have hoarding issues,” he said. “I really haven’t diagnosed people with hoarding. Until the DSM 5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, the central text for mental illness diagnoses) came out, hoarding wasn’t a separate diagnosis. In the DSM 5 it is now a separate disorder.”

El-Mallah explained that the center of the affliction is a lack of insight into the abnormality of one’s collecting habits and the problems posed by them.

“In order for the diagnosis to be made, it has to affect their social and occupational functioning,” El-Mallah said. “With animal hoarding, these people sometime have the belief that they are actually saving these animals, but practically, they are less fed, they are not well taken care of, so it’s actually the opposite.”

Due to the fluid understanding of the condition within the medical community, El-Mallah said it’s hard to say exactly what causes hoarding, although there are several possibilities as to what could cause it.

“There is a connection between early trauma and obsessive compulsive disorder,” the doctor said. “The ecological factors for hoarding are not known. There’s no direct cause and relation. However, there are several factors that could contribute to it. One is genetics. Some people that are hoarders have family members who are also hoarders or have obsessive compulsive disorder. Early trauma could be a factor, too. Some people find comfort in these objects or animals so there may be some emotional deprivation there.”

Employees at area animal shelters are feeling the pressure from those who own too many animals to properly care for.

Peggy Lahn, manager of the Shenandoah County Animal Shelter in Edinburg, said that the shelter unquestionably feels the effects of those who own more animals than they’re able to care for. She said the problem’s solution could be as simple as spaying and neutering one’s pets.

“It starts with two cats that are not spayed or neutered and then you take their kittens and their kittens’ kittens … It really gets out of hand quickly,” Lahn said, noting the exponential growth that can result in significant amount of animals.

Within one year, a group of cats that start as one non-neutered male and one unspayed female, will, on average, be a group of 12. Going by an average of two litters annually and an average of 2.8 surviving kittens per litter, that same group will number 66 by the end of the second year and so on.

Lahn said she believes that those who end up in such a situation are well-intended, but are simply overwhelmed.

Regardless of intentions, there are legal and ethical implications in a situation in which animals aren’t adequately cared for,

Lahn, who has worked at the shelter for 16 years, said that they receive animals from hoarding cases occasionally, but it’s rare. She said that more seem to have occurred over the last year or so.

Lahn and her staff are often tasked with evaluating the adoptability of animals brought from hoarding situations relative to the cost of care and recuperation. She said that sometimes the best thing for animals that are brought in is to humanely euthanize them. The unpleasant reality of the situation is that there is a point of no return for these animals. Despite their plight, and despite the unlivable conditions from which many come, many show resilience. But conditions present in many of these environments often result in animals being malnourished, emaciated and ill.

“They get the upper respiratory (infections),” Lahn said. “They get the weepy eyes, they get the runny nose. … We have to make smart decisions. We only euthanize for two reasons here: if they’re a liability to the public or volunteer staff or if it’s too costly to treat them. Some of the conditions these animals have come in, the kindest thing you can do is to humanely euthanize them. If they’re salvageable, they all deserve a chance. … Once they get the fresh food and water, and a love and a bed and toys, it’s living. This is heaven (compared to what they had).”

Holly Grim is the assistant manager of the Esther Boyd Animal Shelter in Frederick County. She said that personally in the past 10 years she can recall three instances of hoarding from which animals made their way to her shelter.

“(Their condition was) very poor,” she said. “Illness, nutrition, overcrowding, parasites, there’s a lot of conditions that affect animals in a hoarding situation. They tend to be very neglected and generally the hoarder becomes overwhelmed and can’t care for them.”

Grim agreed with Lahn, saying many animal hoards are simply a matter of kind intentions gone awry.

“I think the person gets in over their head,” she said. “Then they can’t afford it anymore but they can’t stop from collecting the animals and then the ones that aren’t spayed and neutered start breeding and so on and so forth. … It’s definitely a mental illness. I’m certainly no professional but my belief is that they have some kind of emotional need that needs to be filled.”

Susie Daily, kennel director at the Warren County Animal Shelter, located at 1245 Progress Drive in Front Royal, said she doesn’t believe there has been an increase in instances of animal hoarding.

“I don’t think that I’ve seen an increase,” she said. “I think they do tend to come in waves. Lots of times, there will be an ongoing problem with cats but it doesn’t get addressed for a long time.”

She said that in her experience, behavioral issues are common with cats who come from hoards.

“When you have that many animals in close quarters you’re going to have a lot of animals coming in sick. You also have behavioral issues, especially with cats.”

The problem when it comes to the care and rehabilitation of these animals is not a lack of compassion from their keepers, it’s simply a logistical matter. Without hoarding situations, area shelters are already squeezed for space. There’s simply nowhere to put 30, 40, 50 cats. There are some organizations working to fill that gap. Furry Friends Animal Rescue, based in Woodstock, is one such entity.

Robin Bradfield, founder of Furry Friends, said her operation does all they can to help, but the costs add up.

“It (spaying) is the first thing we do when we take an animal into our care,” Bradfield said. “We take them straight to Seven Bends (Animal Hospital). They are fully vetted when they go for adoption. For a lot of them, we haven’t been accepting adoption fees. When you find a good home, just take it and run with it.”

Bradfield agreed with Dellinger in regard to the awareness of these instances increasing, rather than the instances themselves.

“I think they are more often being reported on,” she said. “I think that like with the Sheriff Department’s Facebook, people say ‘my neighbor’s got a situation like this, we need to report this’. Sometimes it’s just much later than it should be. I’d prefer you contact me when you’ve got 10 instead of 70.”

Both Bradfield and the staff at the Shenandoah County Animal Shelter implored those who may be in a hoarding situation, or are worried they may eventually find themselves overwhelmed by too many animals, to understand that help is out there. They said area residents can call shelters, rescue groups, and veterinarians, before the situation gets out of hand.

Contact staff writer Nathan Budryk at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or


Contact Info

  • Shenandoah County Animal Shelter: 540-984-8955.
  • Warren County Animal Shelter: 540-635-473.
  • Esther Boyd Animal Shelter, Frederick County: 540-667-9192.
  • Winchester SPCA: 540-662-8616.
  • Furry Friends: 540-325-2733.