Weekly Topic: Animal Hoarding: An under-recognized One Welfare problem
Lauren Bernstein


An under-recognized One Welfare problem

Last month, a central Iowa man was charged with five counts of animal neglect in what the Animal Rescue League of Iowa called the worst animal hoarding case it has seen in over a decade. Authorities found 300 cats in the man’s home, nearly 200 of them dead, plus toxic air quality and six to 12 inches of feces covering almost every visible surface of the home. Authorities transported the homeowner to the hospital for medical and mental health evaluations, decisions that demonstrate the nuances of an under-recognized, indeliberate animal abuse problem and an insufficiently researched human psychosocial condition.

Animal hoarding is a poorly understood disorder that often arises after a major life event occurs, where a hoarder may view his animals as a source of love or view himself as a rescuer, unable to give up the animals for which he feels responsible. This often results in unintentional neglect and abuse; the hoarder becomes too emotionally and physically overwhelmed to provide appropriate animal care or simultaneously recognize his own health and social needs.

Treatment for animal hoarding is not often straightforward and involves a cognitive-behavioral approach to disorders that could include compulsive-type behaviors, depression, or paranoia. Removing the animals from the home is typically not enough and often results in a re-accumulation of animals. The underlying issue should be addressed more comprehensively through coordinated interventions involving social workers, medical care facilities, law enforcement, and animal control.

Des Moines Register

What is One Welfare?

Anxiety and Depression Association of America

Animal health and welfare concerns

Despite the common misperception that animal hoarding is simply the overaccumulation of cats, victims of this complex form of animal cruelty can include dogs, reptiles, horses, rabbits, birds, or other species. Beyond having more than the typical number of animals, animal hoarding is characterized by the failure to provide essential space, nutrition, sanitation, and veterinary care, and the inability to recognize the resultant deterioration of animal, human, and environmental health.

The minimum standard of preventive or therapeutic veterinary care is often unmet; animals are usually not spayed, neutered, or protected against highly contagious and potentially fatal preventable diseases like parvovirus, feline leukemia virus, and rabies. Other physical consequences include starvation or malnutrition, infectious skin diseases, traumatic injuries, intestinal and external parasitism, gastrointestinal diseases, and respiratory diseases. Emotionally, hoarded animals could be victims of aggression, experience poor socialization, and suffer from chronic stress. During hoarding interventions, animals are transported to local shelters or veterinary clinics for triage, treatment, and hopeful adoption. Animals with severe injury or disease are euthanized, as are unsocialized animals with unmodifiable behavioral problems that make them unsuitable for rehoming.

Although most states’ animal cruelty laws imply the inclusion of hoarding in cruelty definitions, Hawaii is the only state in which animal hoarding is outlawed. Animal cruelty laws in Illinois also provide specific language for animal hoarding, but still do not provide specific prosecuting information. Legal outcomes for animal hoarders could vary from fines to jail time.

Animal Legal Defense Fund

Animal Law Resource Center

Animal Legal and Historical Center

Public health concerns

Animal hoarders and responders involved in removing animals are at risk of several health hazards, including exposure to zoonotic diseases, hazardous air quality, and physical injuries. Humans are at risk of zoonotic disease transmission through animal bites or scratches, inhalation, accidental ingestion of fecal particles, or pest vectors. Potential zoonoses include rabies, ringworm, and salmonellosis.

High levels of ammonia, dander, and mold put individuals at risk of respiratory disease, especially in poorly ventilated homes and confined spaces. Personal protective equipment is required when removing animals and should include eye protection, gloves, Tyvek suits, masks or respirators, hair covers, booties, and rubber boots with good traction.

Physical injuries may arise from hazards associated with accumulated animal waste, such as slippery surfaces, rotting structures, and electrical hazards. Additionally, responders could be at risk of injuries from animal bites and scratches during capture efforts or from human aggression if the homeowner is unwilling to comply.

Psychiatry Research

Journal of Environmental Health

ASPCA: How to help if you suspect animal hoarding

  1. Call your local police department, veterinarian, or animal control.
  2. Contact social services, such as adult protective services or mental health agencies.
  3. Be compassionate and reassure the animal hoarder that accepting help will enable the animals to receive urgent care.
  4. Volunteer your time to ease the burden on local shelters by cleaning cages or socializing the removed animals.
  5. Help the animal hoarder with daily animal care if animals are returned to the home.


Questions, comments, feedback about today's Weekly Update? Please email Dr. Lauren Bernstein.

Receive the Weekly Update right in your inbox on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Subscribe now at z.umn.edu/WeeklyUpdateSubscribe.

Lauren Bernstein

Lauren Bernstein

Lauren received her BS in Animal Science from the University of Tennessee. Following a Rotary International site visit to South Africa as an undergraduate student, she decided to focus her prospective veterinary career on public health, specifically on issues involving diseases at the human-animal-environment interface. She completed her veterinary education at the University College Dublin, School of Veterinary Medicine. When she's not in the office, she enjoys yoga, embracing the outdoor activities in Minneapolis, and finding excuses to talk about her rescue cat.