A story in the newspapers today about Britain’s worst hoarder where bodies of mummified cats were discovered among piles of belongings, prompts me to write again about cat hoarding. And I think it is fair to suggest that the ‘cat hoarding gene’ is in all of us. It never happens to 99.9% of us but what I mean is that humans have a predisposition to acquiring possessions. The acquisition of unused possessions is quite common. This is illustrated by celebrities occasionally divesting themselves of expensive and extravagant possessions through auctions to clear the decks.
People deal with this inbuilt desire in different ways. It’s about controlling one’s instincts and some people are very controlling. They keep their homes pristinely sheer while others let their hoarding gene takeover. They acquire both inanimate and animate possessions. Objects they never use and cats they can’t look after properly. For me, the underlying cause is anxiety because being surrounded by possessions can be reassuring.
We should be sensitive to cat hoarders because there but for the grace of God go I. The story I mention in the first paragraph is about a 70-year-old man living in Lancashire, UK. His home was stuffed to the rafters with junk including old kitchen appliances and newspapers. The only way to get into his home was through an upstairs window. Remarkable.
In this man’s case it led to cat cruelty through neglect; a consequence of cat hoarding but rarely the person has a moment of enlightenment and realises what they have become and they call in a cat rescue agency to sort the mess out. It’s happened once to my knowledge.
It’s important to approach cat hoarding with compassion and understanding. It’s a complex mental health problem. And there are different types of cat hoarding. Some cat hoarders are quite classy in their behaviour while at the opposite end of the spectrum there is chaos.
Let’s look at some of the common factors that can contribute to cat hoarding
Emotional attachment and loneliness: cat hoarders normally have a strong emotional attachment to animals. They find their presence comforting. They would find the presence of a single cat comforting but they magnify that with several and then many cats. It becomes an obsessive collection to constantly reinforce the reassurances against the uncertainties of life’s vicissitudes causing anxiety. Cats provide unconditional love and affection which is appealing to many people particularly those who struggle with social interactions.
Need to save all rescue animals: often cat hoarders start off with the idea that they are saving or rescuing animals and that they are the only ones able to do it. They may feel a responsibility to rescue animals to save them from harm or euthanasia at shelters. Ironically they often end up harming the animals they want to protect from harm.
Difficulty letting go or making decisions: often cat hoarders are poor decision-makers. And they normally lack objectivity. They can’t let go of possessions because, as mentioned, they are reassuring. In short, possessions whether they be inanimate or animate to make them feel better. And sometimes hoarders form emotional bonds with each individual cat which can make it harder to release them to shelters. It can be so bad that when a cat dies they still can’t release the cat and they put them in a freezer.
Lack of insight or awareness: I’ve mentioned objectivity above. Some hoarders don’t recognise or acknowledge that they have become a cat hoarder. They might not see the negative impact that they are having on the cats’ well-being. They might be blind to their neglect.
Acceptance: cat hoarders tend to accept the gross untidiness and mess that they create. Arguably, they are inherently untidy people anyway and are not bothered by the gross mess. This facilitates hoarding.
Mental health issues: it’s inevitable, I would argue that the genuine cat hoarder (as opposed to the multi-cat home) has mental health issues, perhaps borderline mental health issues or even severe mental health issues. They may be linked to an obsessive-compulsive disorder, attachment disorders, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.
Large number of cats: cat hoarders typically accumulate a large number of cats which exceeds their ability to care for them properly resulting in health issues and cat deaths.
Deteriorating living conditions: as it gets worse their living conditions deteriorate and faeces and urine accumulate around the home making the environment hazardous risking the health of both cats and the hoarder themselves.
Lack of veterinary care: often cat hoarders have very limited resources in terms of cash flow but often they live in a house which provides enough space for the hoarding to take place. This means the cats lacked veterinary care. This exacerbates cat health problems and the spread of contagious diseases.
Social isolation: hoarders are often socially isolated. In fact, they tend to shut the world out by closing all the windows to prevent the excessive ammonia smells from the urine leaving the building which could notify neighbours of their problem. This indicates an awareness of their problem but an inability to tackle it. Hoarders can have a strained relationship with family and friends and sometimes with neighbours. When the hoarding comes to an end it is because neighbours notify the local authorities or the police because of the smells. The animals are then rescued.
Denial and resistance to intervention: many hoarders resist assistance because they don’t want to recognise their hoarding behaviour. Or if they do recognise it they don’t see it as problematic. This attitude leads to the prolongation of cat hoarding and more animal health problems.
Legal implications: there can be legal implications because the cat hoarder’s home becomes unsanitary which can affect the health of neighbours in adjoining homes (e.g. rats). There will be local authority regulations regarding the situation. Hoarders can be in breach of these regulations.
Mental health treatment: I’m sure that in most cases a genuine cat hoarder requires and hopefully will receive mental health treatment but if not they almost inevitably return to their usual ways. You will see cat hoarders having been evicted from their rented home living in a van or car with the cats that they have hoarded in the most impossible of conditions.
Punishment: Cat hoarders are sometimes punished because they breach animal welfare laws but if they are punished it should be in conjunction with compassionate mental health treatment.
My thanks to Poe for holding my hand on the above.
P.S. A little postscript has come to mind. Cat hoarders wouldn’t be able to engage in their neglectful processes if there were no unwanted cats. We have to criticise the people who supply unwanted cats indirectly by allowing their cats to breed or by abandoning their domestic cat when they move. Or by abandoning their cats to shelters and so on and so forth. There are too many unwanted cats which makes them vulnerable and it places them in the firing line of the cat hoarder who wants to rescue them but in the end the tables are turned and true cat rescuers have to rescue the cats from the cat hoarder.
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