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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Animal Hoarding

Q. I seem to have a problem with collecting stray animals. While the impulse to help relieve suffering in pets is admirable, I seem unable to stop bringing home abandoned cats from the shelter, where I volunteer. This is causing significant problems in my relationship with my fiancee (who lives with me and the 7-10 cats, 3 pet rats and one dog). I live in a very small house and am constantly cleaning up after my pets.

This behavior has been with me all of my life, along with depression (sometimes quite severe), face picking, and panic attacks. I should mention that I am in counseling for childhood trauma and currently taking Celexa and Wellbutrin.

Is rescuing animals one aspect of hoarding? I have been unable to find any web sites dealing specifically with this compulsion. I also notice that many animal rescuers start out meaning well and then end up with 30 cats and on the nightly news for animal neglect. I don't want to become like that and cause harm. Can you offer me some help?

A. You have raised an important issue that even most psychiatrists are probably not aware of. "Animal hoarding" is becoming recognized as a significant but poorly understood problem. Generally, the animal hoarder is someone who:

  • Accumulates a large number of animals
  • Often fails to provide adequate standards of care for the animals
  • Often fails to act on the deteriorating condition of these animals
  • Often fails to recognize the negative effects of this behavior on their own health and well being.

Since you have some awareness of your problem, I don't mean to say that you fit this profile perfectly. But, it does sound like you have a real problem. Some research gathered at Tufts University in Boston suggests that animal hoarders or collectors may see the rescued animals as surrogate children or love substitutes. The hoarder may form excessive emotional attachments to the animals, and may be virtually unable to refuse a needy animal, despite having too many at home already. For more information on this problem, try the websites www.wosconsinhrs.org/articles/hoarding.html and www.tufts.edu/vet/cfa/hoarding.

I also wonder if your habit has some connection to your having been traumatized as a child. In any case, this is surely a problem to be discussed with your counselor. If he or she is unable to help you, you may want to get another opinion from someone specializing in obsessive-compulsive disorders and/or childhood trauma.

In theory, a medication such as Celexa (an SSRI antidepressant) could be of help with such a problem, but other (e.g., cognitive-behavioral) approaches may work better for you. It may also be helpful for you and your fiancÚ to enter couples or marital therapy, if this situation continues.

Good luck in dealing with this-you have already taken the first step!

August 2002

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