Collectors: Addicted to Love (of Pets)
A collector, in the world of human psychiatry, is an individual who takes an obsessive approach to animals, often strays, typically collecting far more animals than they have the capacity to adequately care for.
A twenty-first century version of the "Crazy Cat Lady" there is nothing remotely humorous about these individuals and their obsession with rescuing and keeping large numbers of pets. The condition is classified as an obsessive-compulsive disorder such as hand washing and hair pulling but, to the layperson, it probably seems more like an addiction (which has its own OCD component).
Make no mistake, these are not the backyard puppy mills or urban pit bull breeding farms. These are deeply troubled people with a strong desire to collect non-human substitutes for love, which is likely compounded by a chemical imbalance in the brain.
As a veterinarian I see my share of these people. They are often lovely individuals who may or may not also be depressed and lonely. Some have families that worry and express their concerns to me in various ways. Here’s one illustration:
A woman (who may or not be a Collector but displays obvious tendencies) and her husband arrive at the hospital to visit one of their fifteen or so cats. This one is deathly ill and she patently refuses to euthanize him, in spite of his terminal cancer and marked despondency. Suffering? Who knows? He’s too far gone to tell anymore.
This woman is clearly the responsible party in the adoption of all family cats and spends an amazing amount of money on their healthcare. She is constantly on the lookout for needy specimens. Were it not for her husband’s admonitions she’d probably have thirty-plus cats…and no life beyond their care.
On exiting the hospital, she spies the receptionist’s new diamond ring, a gift from her adoring (and wealthy) boyfriend, and coos in admiration. The husband, clearly exasperated, announces angrily to the hospital (and to all the clients in the waiting room), "See that ring? That’s one year of your cats right there. I’d love to be able to buy you one but I can’t—not with your cat expenses!”
Needless to say we were shocked at his outburst. This man has never appeared anything less than supportive, but he’s now reached the end of his tether. The cats are clearly a problem for this family. The marriage is bound to dissolve if her compulsion persists.
Veterinarians, whether or not they understand this behavior as a disorder, are duty-bound, I believe, to call patients out in circumstances where they recognize that clients are spending beyond their means or continually suffering at the expense of their menagerie.
Most of us are uncomfortable in doing so and perhaps we see it as stepping outside the bounds of our professional role—maybe we’re even practicing human medicine, in a way, should we discuss their mental health. Yet we never balk at hugging a client to express our sympathy over the death of a loved one or talking to them at length about grief counseling services they might choose to avail themselves of upon a pet’s death.
I posit that to ignore such behavior is to continually enable it and ultimately does the person a great disservice. Moreover, I don’t want to feel like the bartender who racks up tips knowing the alcoholic across the bar is destroying his life and, furthermore, is likely to get into his Porsche and possibly kill himself or someone else.
I’m a realist, so I don’t believe I can make them change their ways with one discussion. But since I’m in a better position than most to observe them at their worst, I will continue to urge that they consider "talking to someone" about what I see as a problem for them and their families. Sometimes, when someone professional makes a statement like this it hits home more forcefully than a full-out family intervention.
What else can I do? Fire them? They’ll end up in the same place…somewhere else. At least I’m someone who doesn’t take advantage of their willingness to make my mortgage payments for me.