Baby Steps: On Identifying Animal Hoarders Early On
The issue of hoarding has recently gotten a creepy degree of play in the popular media. On the one hand, these exposés are a great idea. How else to raise the profile of a problem that is more pervasive than most non-veterinarians know? On the other, I've got to marvel at the strange and intimate details Americans are willing to suck up wholesale thanks to the reality-TV phenomenon.
Never mind that real humans with serious problems are obviously being exploited by way of our edification on the subject of their sickness. After all, we're learning to spot them … and maybe do something about it.
So you see my dilemma. You probably feel it, too.
Unfortunately, in my case it's a little different than for most of TV-land. As a veterinarian, I'm actually tasked with doing something about it. That is, if I so choose to accept the mission before me, which is to identify clients who might be suffering from the compulsion to hoard animals in the course of my normal working life … and do it before they've adopted habits so ingrained it's less likely they'll have a chance at recovery.
Now, in the course of my career I've come across plenty of people whose candidacy for the term, "hoarder" has been at least questionable — as in, more than a few handfuls of pets. And yet, I've seldom thought it necessary to do more than speak with them or their families before reaching a reasonable, if uncomfortable, truce on the subject.
This makes me think that either (1) severe hoarding of pets is rarer than TV would have you think it is, (2) I've been spared contact with the sickest animal hoarders, or (3) plenty of veterinarians like me are competent at spotting and putting a kibosh on the kind of hoarding that makes it to TV-landia.
After fifteen years in practice and plenty of consultation with like-minded veterinarians, I've come to the conclusion that early detection of animal hoarding is totally doable and can yield impressive results. Indeed, it's not a disease that can easily go undetected as long as hoarders seek veterinary care (and they usually will in the early stages of the process).
Unlike other addictions, where early detection is often unprofitable (think alcoholism and compulsive gambling), animal hoarding is often a family endeavor, since it is subject to the financial and sanitary requirements of others. Hence, it's one disease veterinarians have the ability to jump in and weigh in on before things spiral ineluctably out of control.
Not always, but often (at least in my experience).
Which only serves to make me wonder: How do all these hoarders we're now hearing about get past the veterinary gates? Do they not seek veterinary care? Do their veterinarians not care? Or perhaps that's how Animal Planet (and its ilk) comes by its knowledge … because if I had an intractable hoarder as a client, I'd probably be willing to tattle-tale to the TV media if privacy laws complied.
Still, I can't imagine ever having to do so. Not when early detection and early control are so doable. But then, I live in the luxury of a closely-controlled suburban environment where my clients are well-known to me and my patients seldom suffer the evils of extreme alienation typically associated with this kind of addiction.
Which is why maybe … just maybe … this admission proves that I deserve to remain in the kind of indecisive limbo I confessed to at the outset of this post. Yes, sometimes there's no fathoming an issue. But at least I do know this: hoarding may not be 100 percent preventable, but it is almost always instantly identifiable. Whether it's ten cats or a hundred, I can almost always tell who's who. And that's almost always the first step, right?
Dr. Patty Khuly