By Jennifer Williams, Ph.D.

While most people know that many dogs, cats, horses and other animals are neglected or abused in this country every year, only a few people have heard of the condition dubbed “animal collector” or “animal hoarder” by psychologists and rescue workers.

Animal collectors often start with the best of intentions. They love animals and cannot tolerate the abuse and neglect they suffer at the hands of humans. Or they may be appalled by the animal over population problems and the shelters that euthanize the “excess” animals. They begin taking in animals, just one here or one there. They love the animals, and while they may initially intend to find homes for these formerly unwanted critters, they decide they can’t let go of them. Now, taking in and keeping stray or unwanted animals isn’t a problem, but it crosses the line once the collector has more animals than he or she can care for.

Animal collectors often force their animals to live in deplorable conditions. They cannot provide medication attention for injuries and they refuse to euthanize those animals they cannot help. They have more animals than they can clean up after, and feces begins to accumulate. Additionally, they don’t have enough money to feed all of these animals, so the animals have to scavenge for their food.

When someone offers to help an animal collector, their help is most often turned down. The animal collector feels that she is providing for the animals in her care, and she does not need outside assistance. She may not want to let outsiders in to see her animals, either.

Psychologists believe that animal collecting (sometimes called animal addiction) may be related to obsessive-compulsive type disorders. Many animal collectors also collect inanimate objects including junk or trash. Animal rescuers or animal control officers who seize animals from a collector must often wade through trash on the floor or ground, push past mounds of newspapers, magazines, and papers, and negotiate through collections of various inanimate objects.

Some characteristics of animal collectors:

  • Most are female.
  • Most live alone.
  • Most have no social support structure – no family or friends.
  • Those collectors who were not socially isolated when they began collecting often lose contact with friends and family as their animals become more and more important.
  • Most are intelligent and many are educated.
  • Most are very shrewd and able to attract sympathy from the public. They are able to solicit money for the animals at events and they may appear on TV or in the papers discussing their rescue efforts and need for money.
  • Most feel the need to bring in more and more animals.
  • Many call themselves rescuers, activists, or animal saviors.
  • Many are reluctant to let any animals go. In fact, many cannot even dispose of the bodies of those animals who die. When the authorities come in to seize the living animals, they often find dead animals as well.
  • Many fear death and will not euthanize an animal, even if the animal is suffering.
  • All collectors deny that there is anything wrong with their situation.
  • There is a stench of urine and/or feces that’s noticeable even outside their house or barn.
  • They have sick animals who do not receive proper veterinary care.
  • They are dishonest or evasive about the number of animals they own.
  • They believe that no one can care for the animals they way they can.
  • They need to control everything that happens to the animals.

Often, once the authorities are alerted to a collector and seize her animals, she begins collecting again immediately. She protests that she has been victimized by law enforcement and the rescues who seized her animals, and she may proclaim that she is only “rescueing” the animals in her care.

While dogs and cats are often the species collectors chose, horses have also been collected. I have been involved in animal collector cases. In one, we entered a property to seize several animals and found the entire property covered in trash – bags full of cans, old, empty feed sacks, old boats, cars, and RVs, and more. There were animals whose feet were so long they curled up, there were injured animals who had gone untreated, and the rescuers found remains of dead animals. The owner insisted that she was a rescuer and was providing for these animals, but the courts found that the animals were neglected and removed them from her.

Animal collecting is a sad condition, and psychologists will need to study this further and make recommendations for treating it. The courts will need to work with psychologists to get the humans the help they need, and the courts will need to work with legitimate rescuers to get help for the animals who are the victims of this disease.