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What do you think when you hear the term ‘cat hoarder’? You might think that anyone who has more than a certain number of cats is a ‘hoarder’. But that’s not quite true – cat hoarding is a complex issue caused by mental illness.
A cat hoarder will have an extremely large number of cats, much more than a typical household. Sadly, they’re unable to provide adequate standards of care and attention, which causes the cats to suffer.
Signs of a cat hoarder
Cat hoarders have an intense emotional attachment to cats and live in houses that are overrun with cats and kittens. The outward signs will vary based on how long the hoarding situation has been going on, but you can expect to see:
- Overcrowded living spaces – you’ll see cats in every room of the house and on top of every piece of furniture.
- Excessive clutter – rooms will be untidy and cluttered. Household debris such as empty cat food tins and household rubbish will build up over time.
- Dirty and unhygienic – cat hoarders struggle to keep up with cleaning litter boxes. You’ll smell cat faeces and urine throughout the living spaces.
- Property damage – over time, large numbers of cats will scratch and destroy walls, furniture and carpets.
Most cat hoarders are in denial about what they’re doing. They believe they’re cat lovers looking out for the best interests of the cats in their care. They may not see the detrimental effect that hoarding has on the cats’ well-being or their own daily life.
A hoarder is also likely to be secretive about how many cats they have, and their condition. They may feel embarrassed or ashamed and are likely to be defensive or evade any questions when asked. Cat hoarders can be reclusive and want to keep people out of their homes. They like to maintain control but also want to prevent people from discovering the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions they and the cats live in.
Why do people become cat hoarders?
There is usually a combination of factors that contribute to cat hoarding behaviour. Cat hoarders strongly believe they’re doing it for the love of cats – helping and saving cats in need. When they take on the role of caregiver it gives them a strong sense of purpose.
Dr Mark Lawrie, former chief vet at RSPCA NSW says that most hoarders start out with good intentions but:
[It gets] to the point where they’re not even seeing them as animals anymore, but just an item that they’re collecting.ABC News, “Animals become ‘things to collect’ as pet ownership descends into hoarding”, 30 March 2023.
For some people, hoarding behaviour is a coping mechanism after a traumatic event, such as illness or the loss of a loved one. Cats provide companionship, comfort and stability. People who are sad and lonely or have a history of trauma, form an attachment to cats because it makes them feel better. In extreme cases, that emotional bond leads to a desire to accumulate more cats.
In most cases, the root cause of cat hoarding is an underlying mental illness, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, anxiety, or a personality or attachment disorder.
A cat hoarder has a distorted perception – they think they are rescuing cats. Hoarders also struggle with decision-making and have difficulty letting go. That’s why it is so hard for a hoarder to give up any of their cats and rehome them.
How many cats is considered hoarding?
It’s difficult to put a specific number on when cat ownership becomes hoarding. Animal welfare organisations consider someone to be a cat hoarder if they have more cats than they can adequately care for. Caring for cats involves more than the provision of basic needs such as food and shelter. It also includes veterinary care, environmental enrichment, and socialisation for their overall well-being.
The consequences of cat hoarding
When a high number of cats live together and aren’t being properly cared for, the results can be horrific.
Spread of infectious diseases
Living in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions poses many health risks for cats. They are more likely to get respiratory infections, parasites, and other contagious illnesses such as:
- frequent flea infestations, ticks or ear mites
- intestinal worms
- feline herpesvirus or calicivirus which spread through coughing or sneezing
- other serious infections such as FeLV, FIV or FIP.
The hoarder may also be at risk of zoonotic diseases transmitted from animals to humans, such as ringworm or toxoplasmosis.
Lack of veterinary care
Cat hoarders often struggle to provide veterinary care due to finances or neglect. Overcrowded living conditions exacerbate health issues, and illnesses often go unnoticed and untreated. Without routine health checks and timely veterinary care, cats can become seriously ill.
If a cat hoarder isn’t taking their cats to the vet for basic care, they’re unlikely to be spayed or neutered either. So the hoarded population continues to grow with the birth of kittens.
Poor diet and malnutrition
With too many cats to feed, hoarders often struggle to provide enough food and water for each cat in their care. They may feed a cheap, low-quality or unbalanced diet that lacks the essential nutrients cats need.
In hoarding situations, competition and food aggression can also occur. Some cats may struggle to access food or not eat enough due to fear or aggression from other cats in the house.
Stress and behavioural issues
It’s not only the cats’ physical health that’s compromised at the hands of cat hoarders. Their mental health and social needs are often affected.
Like humans, cats are easily affected by stress, so the tension caused by living in large groups can be a real issue. Behavioural signs of a stressed cat include aggression, urine spraying, overgrooming or wanting to hide all the time. Stress can also weaken their immune systems making cats more susceptible to illness.
The more cats a hoarder has, the less human contact and interaction they get. This lack of socialisation can result in cats becoming fearful, skittish or withdrawn. In many hoarding situations, cats become semi-feral.
How to help a cat hoarder
The sad fact is that many animals rescued from hoarders have to be euthanised. Hoarded cats are likely to suffer from physical illness as well as social and behavioural problems, so it’s not always easy to rehome them.
A non-judgmental and empathetic approach is essential when helping a cat hoarder. It’s important to remember that cat hoarding usually results from underlying mental health issues.
You will need a multi-faceted approach to help cat hoarders and their cats:
- Provide information to help hoarders understand the impact on the cats’ well-being and quality of life.
- Offer practical assistance to improve living conditions for the cats.
- Involve local animal welfare organisations to provide guidance, veterinary care and help with rehoming.
- Encourage the hoarder to seek professional help to support their mental well-being.
- If the hoarded cats are in immediate danger or the hoarder is unwilling or unable to change, legal authorities can help protect the cats.
Not all individuals with multiple cats are hoarders, so don’t panic if you have more than the average number of cats. As long as you can provide the highest standards of care (including veterinary treatment) and your cats are happy and healthy, then you’ve simply got a larger-than-average feline family!
Have you known any cat hoarders? Or been involved with rescuing cats from hoarding situations? Share your experiences in the comments.
Note: photos of cats in this article are not from a hoarding situation.