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How to deal with pet hoarding

Attendees of the World Horse Welfare Conference 2019 were warned of the signs of pet hoarding behaviour

24 February 2020, at 2:30pm

Veterinary staff may not always be the first to know when people are keeping large numbers of animals that are not being looked after properly. But they will certainly be at the front line of efforts to pick up the pieces and minimise any resulting suffering, the audience was told at the World Horse Welfare Conference in London in November 2019.

Bronwen Williams, a Worcestershire-based mental health nurse, is one of the leading UK experts on the phenomenon of pet hoarding. She carried out the first academic study in the UK into the psychology of people who collect animals in such numbers that exceed their capacity to look after their health and welfare.

Her study looked at the circumstances surrounding incidents of people keeping excessive numbers of horses. But the key features of the owners’ behaviour were much the same as in those more frequently publicised cases involving large collections of cats or dogs. Furthermore, the strategy for dealing with the problem will also be exactly the same, she said. If the police or animal welfare organisations are required to prosecute pet hoarders because of the scale of problems discovered on their premises, the focus will usually be on physical suffering. Bronwen pointed out that there can also be significant psychological problems for any animal being kept in conditions that don’t adequately meet even their most basic needs.

Also, when dealing with larger animals like horses, there are frequently concerns over the safety of those staff sent out by welfare organisations to collect and care for the animals. People responsible for hoarding horses will often have a misguided notion that their animals should be left alone “as nature intended” which means they will be completely unused to being handled. Bronwen noted that there is often some sympathy for this notion from the general public, which may explain why such cases will not always be reported at the first sign of problems.

Her published research was based on a detailed investigation into the experiences of field staff working for the equine welfare organisations. It confirmed the findings of the only previous studies in this area by US researchers which indicated that animal hoarders fall into three main categories.

They are the “overwhelmed care-givers” who take in or breed so many animals that they can no longer cope; “mission-driven animal rescuers” whose efforts around taking in neglected animals are stretched by their reluctance to rehome or euthanise any animal; and the “exploitative” individuals who see opportunities for financial rewards from collecting and keeping animals.

Whatever category the animal hoarders fall into, it is unlikely that either the threat or the consequences of being prosecuted will have much effect in changing their behaviour. “The published studies seem to suggest that the recidivism rate in this situation is 100 percent and people who have had their animals confiscated will often go out later the same day looking for replacements,” she said.

Bronwen said the available evidence shows that in many ways, the behaviour of animal hoarders is very similar to that of people with an addiction to alcohol, drugs or gambling. As a result, anyone seeking to change their actions will find the process extremely challenging, she warned.

“You can try persuading, cajolery, bribing or threatening, the results will almost always be the same. When people decide to change their behaviour, the motivation has to be internal, it must be intrinsic to that person. Just telling them that they need to change just won’t work,” she said.

One possible solution is the technique known as motivational interviewing, in which appropriately trained people will attempt to question and understand the underlying motivations of their client and subtly guide them into recognising the need to alter their behaviour. These methods have been used with a fair degree of success in many other fields and have certainly shown promise in the veterinary sphere through encouraging dairy farmers to adopt strategies that will minimise the risk of mastitis and lameness in their herds.

Bronwen Williams said that she has been working on a project to train field staff from the welfare organisations in using similar methods to investigate and modify the behaviour of animal hoarders. The initial results of this project have been encouraging and it is hoped that a paper can be published in the scientific literature when the project is completed, she told the meeting.

In the meantime, there are two important contributions that veterinary practice staff can make to deal with the problems of animal hoarding. “One is to understand and recognise the signs of animal hoarding, particularly in its early stages when it is far more likely that we can do something about it,” she said.

“The other important piece of advice that I would offer to veterinary staff is that they should not be afraid to raise their concerns with other agencies that are likely to become involved in these cases. They will not have to deal with these complex problems on their own – the medical and social services, local authorities, police and animal welfare organisations will each have a role to play.”