Is having many cats an early sign of animal hoarding?

Do people who own more than twenty cats show greater attachment to their pets, or signs of anxiety and depression?

When people have a lot of cats, does it mean they are at risk to become an animal hoarder? Research looks at this question.

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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In January of this year, 99 live cats and 67 dead ones were removed from a woman’s home near Albany, New York. The cats were living in crates surrounded by faeces, and the woman was subsequently charged with animal cruelty. If situations like this could be predicted, psychological help at an early stage might prevent animals from being harmed. A study published this month by Ramos et al in Brazil investigates whether or not the early stages of cat hoarding can be identified.

Animal hoarders have large numbers of animals for which they do not provide proper care. They are unaware of (or in denial about) the poor state of their animals, and continue to acquire more. Animal hoarders can have psychological problems including attachment disorders, anxiety, and grief. The most commonly hoarded animals are cats..

It is often reported that animal hoarders have previously had normal, healthy relationships with pets. Ramos wondered if there is a stage prior to hoarding, where someone has a large number of well-cared for animals, but could potentially tip-over into a hoarding situation. Hence, this study looked at people who have more cats than is the norm, but who are not hoarders because the animals are in good condition. 

The researchers compared people who own one or two cats to those who own twenty or more. Participants were recruited via leaflets at the university veterinary hospital and a local vet clinic, and thirty participants were in each group. 

The questionnaire included standardized scales designed to assess attachment to pets, anxiety and depression, and hoarding behaviour. A researcher attended the person’s home while the questionnaire was completed, so they could confirm that the cats were in good condition. 

The group who owned lots of cats had between twenty and a hundred cats, with an average of thirty-six. It is worth noting that although both groups contained equal numbers of men and women, those who owned many cats were significantly older than those who owned only one or two cats, with average ages of 53 and 27 respectively.

There were no differences between the two groups in levels of anxiety, depression, or on the savings inventory which measures acquisition, clutter, and difficulties discarding items. However, owners of twenty or more cats reported being significantly more attached to their cats than owners of one or two cats.

For owners of twenty or more cats, there was a significant correlation between anxiety and scores on the savings inventory which measures aspects of hoarding behaviour. This relationship was not found in owners of one or two cats. There was also a trend for a relationship between depression and scores on the savings inventory for owners of many cats, but it did not reach significance.

This study is the first to investigate differences between owners of many cats and owners of one or two cats. It suggests that, amongst people who own twenty cats or more, there is a significant relationship between anxiety and hoarding behaviour. However, it is important to remember that the people who took part in this study were not animal hoarders, as their cats were well cared for.

Ramos also suggests there may be cultural reasons for owning large numbers of cats, since cats are very popular in Brazil, but many cats don’t have homes and live on the streets. Cats that are taken to animal shelters are often euthanized. Hence, people who care about cats might acquire street cats in order to give them a home. Certainly, some of the participants who owned many cats said they had taken in strays. 

Ramos says, “if many people acquire cats in such a way, it may also become a cultural norm and therefore not be considered inappropriate or inadequate in terms of animal care.”

These results are very interesting because they show differences in levels of attachment to cats between owners of many cats and owners of one or two cats. Amongst owners of many cats, the relationship between anxiety and hoarding behaviours is in the same direction as that found in a clinical population. Without follow-up, however, it is not known if these people will develop hoarding behaviour or not; they may simply continue to have many well-cared for cats. 

This study opens up a new direction for research in understanding animal hoarding. Future studies should have a larger sample, and aim to match the two groups on other variables such as age.  A longitudinal study of owners of many cats would help to investigate the factors that lead to a change from having many well-cared for animals to hoarding them. This would be challenging to do, as animal hoarders are often reluctant to let outsiders see their animals. 

What do you think should be done to help prevent animal hoarding?

If you liked this post, check out my book Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. Dr. Sarah Ellis says, "Purr is definitely a book your cat would want you to read!"

You might also like: 5 things to do for your cat today (essential tips for cat lovers).

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Fitzgerald, Bryan (2013) Extreme cat hoarder faces animal abuse charges. Times Union, obtained online 8th April 2013. 
Ramos, D., Da Cruz, N., Ellis, S. L. H., Hernandez, J. A. E., & Reche-Junior, A. (2013). Early stage animal hoarders: are these owners of large numbers of adequately cared for cats?. Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin, (2013).

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