Poor decision-making and a mental blind spot are behind cat hoarding

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a way of curing cat hoarding? They take a pill and the years of collecting rubbish and cats is suddenly over. Science has not brought us to that utopian point which surprises me because science is very clever these days and cat hoarding is quite common. However, we can glean some nice insights into cat hoarding through a Scientific American article of 2012 (yes, years ago) which reports on a study in which hoarders in general had their brain’s scanned to see why they never de-clutter.

Cat hoarding
Cat hoarding picture. Picture in the public domain.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats


I’m going to state that the same problem is behind hoarding cats and hoarding other objects. The same mental processes take place. If a person can hoard objects, they can hoard cats if they like cats. And this study found that hoarders are poor decision makers. They are uncertain whether they should throw something away or keep it. The brain scans indicated anxiety and indecisiveness when making a decision about throwing something away.

Hoarders are not necessarily keen to keep everything that they possess but the disorder, the scientists say is “characterised by a marked avoidance of decision-making about possessions”. They discovered that there was “extra activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and insula while evaluating what to do with their own items”. The quote comes from the article and they say that this extra activity may hamper the ability to make a decision about chucking stuff out. They decided that hoarders feel that they are at risk of making a bad decision and therefore don’t make a decision at all.

In conclusion, and I’m going to add my thoughts on that at this stage, it seems to me that cat hoarders are insecure people and poor decision makers. They are unsure about what to do with the objects that they have acquired so they keep them “just in case” they need them at some time in the future. Obviously domestic cats are different but I would argue the same mental process is in place particularly so because hoarders have a blind spot. They don’t consider themselves to be a hoarder. Even after they’ve been conclusively shown to be hoarders, they still don’t get it. They probably see themselves as collectors of useful objects. They don’t mind the clutter. You’ll have to educate them that clutter is bad for health (people and cats).

In the words of the scientists the disorder is “frequently characterised by poor insight about the severity of their condition, leading to resistance of attempts by others to intervene”. That’s the blind spot in their mental processes. And if their possessions are removed from them, and they naturally feel incredibly anxious when that happens, they will simply reacquire objects and cats and start all over again because the underlying condition has not been addressed.

It’s clear that cat hoarding is a mental health issue, in the OCD family of disorders. One consequence is that the living accommodation becomes uninhabitable due to the amount of filth that accumulates. The Mayo Clinic has a guide for treatment and prevention of hoarding disorder and one recommendation is that they try to keep up personal hygiene. In other words, they ask hoarders to bathe themselves to keep themselves clean. I’m not sure that that is viable because the bath tub is full of objects!

But it seems to me that cat hoarders lose their bearings on personal hygiene and of course the hygiene and health and welfare of the cats in their possession. Once again it is a mental blind spot. They don’t see it. They convince themselves that everything is normal. Perhaps they normalise the abnormal over the long period of time that they have been hoarding.

But the key aspect of this study is that hoarding comes down to an inability to make a decision about divesting themselves of cats or inanimate objects. That’s the insight. I would have thought that that mental blockage could be tackled through education combined with perhaps drug treatment. Perhaps some sort of talking therapy would help. You have to give the cat hoarder the confidence through education and knowledge to be able to make a decision. This is about confidence and knowledge in my view. Give them both and it may unlock the problem.

P.S. I think that there is a postscript to this story. If domestic cats were scarce in the world, if there were no stray cats and no unwanted cats, would you have cat hoarders? Let’s remind ourselves that cat hoarding is born out of too many unwanted cats. They are there for the taking and cat hoarders take them. If cats were very hard to acquire you wouldn’t have this problem or certainly not to this extent.

P.P.S. Not all people with a large number of cats are cat hoarders. If their home is clean and tidy and well managed then I would not describe them as cat hoarders. I think the lack of hygiene and the filth is part of cat hoarding.


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