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The catwoman phenomenon: why do people hoard animals?

Melanie Whitehouse / 15 April 2016

We look at what lies behind animal hoarding disorder, and find out what you can do to help both hoarders and their animals.

What causes people, particularly women, to hoard more and more animals?

We’ve all seen the horrific pictures: scores of mangy cats, crammed together in appalling conditions and owned by a woman clearly in need of psychiatric help. This is animal hoarding, a condition that can cause extreme suffering to every living thing involved – but which we don’t officially recognise in the UK.

Celia Hammond – founder of the Celia Hammond Trust, which rescues and re-homes unwanted and abused cats and other animals - says it’s an enormous problem.

“About 75% of animal hoarders are women, mainly middle-aged to elderly. They never ask for help, which is why they’re in such a state,” says former model Celia. “They wait until it’s out of control and it gets worse and worse as offspring mate with offspring. The real hoarders don’t know they’re doing anything wrong. It’s nearly always lonely women, invariably without family, who have no contact with the outside world. They feed the cats enough to keep them alive but they’re often in a disgusting condition.

“We see several bad cases a year and some truly appalling situations. The most we ever found was 60 blue cats in one house and 52 Persians in another.”

Related: why don't people adopt black cats?

How to help a hoarder

Helping these women (and men, although male hoarders are rare) isn’t easy. To a hoarder, the animals are family and anyone seeking to relocate them is kidnapping their “children”.

“You have to beg through the letterbox to give them help, although some never let you in,” adds Celia. “It’s hard to talk to people with more than 20 cats because they get defensive. A typical hoarder finds it difficult to talk to anybody sensibly and doesn’t recognise there’s a problem.”

While charities such as the RSPCA take care of the animals and sometimes bring cruelty charges, the hoarder usually remains untreated.

Dr June McNicholas, an animal and human psychologist, says animal hoarders start out “doing the best possible thing with the best possible motive” but the situation often escalates until it’s out of control.

“Maybe it’s because they believe others won’t do it as well, maybe they’re susceptible to emotional blackmail when people say, ‘If you can’t take my cat it’ll have to be put down’. It’s the ‘I’ll manage somehow’ that gets people into trouble,” she explains.

“We tend to think of these people as looking wild with a woolly hat and cardi held together by safety pins and that maybe because they put everything, financially and timewise, into these animals, which become the total focus of their lives to the exclusion of everything else - even their own health care and hygiene. In these houses you have cats on every surface, hanging from the mantelpiece and kitchen cupboards.

“Some of these people are not ‘normal’ and sadly when they cross that boundary there’s a real concern for human and animal welfare. I’ve been involved in a number of rescues where the animals aren’t cared for and nor is the person - and everybody is suffering.

“But some of these people are normal, although often they appear to have an emotional instability or a lack of a human social network. It’s a vicious circle: they’re isolated, they fixate on cats, they have too many cats, they become more isolated.

“People start with boarding and end up hoarding. They don’t see it happening but once they’re in it they can’t get out of it without help.”

What’s behind the condition?

Hoarding may be an early sign of dementia, or a delusional or attachment disorder. The clearest link, though, is with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). 

Like OCD sufferers, hoarders can experience an unrealistic sense of responsibility to their animals and unrealistic expectations – for instance, hoarders’ calling themselves "saviours". Although there is no accepted treatment, some studies suggest prescribing medication for delusional disorders (antipsychotics) or OCD (certain antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs).

What happens to the cats?

The consequences of cat hoarding aren’t good for the cat. “These cats are often kept indoors and allowed to interbreed, so you get congenital and inherited problems plus infections and contagious diseases associated with overcrowding,” says cat behaviour counsellor Vicky Halls.

“The hoarder interacts with them in a particularly unique way, so they don’t learn to socialise. They are a massive colony of interbred cats with no concept of how to live in a domestic environment with humans.”

Even if the cats are signed over to an authority like Cats Protection, most of the animals will have to be put to sleep because human contact and confinement in a cage stresses them beyond belief.

“The hoarder isn’t somebody who’s bad but somebody who’s ill,” adds Vicky. “Early intervention is what these people need. Friends, family and neighbours should be caring and vigilant and alert the authorities early.”

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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