Christiana Bratiotis delivers her keynote presentation at an animal hoarding workshop on June 12, 2019, in Regina, Sask. Photo by Josh Hourie.

Lack of research hinders help for animal hoarders

While reality television shows such as “Hoarding: Buried Alive” have brought attention to people who stash away piles of books, clothing and other objects, the issue of animal hoarding often goes unpublicized and unrecognized as a health concern.

By Rigel Smith

In June, about 60 people from various provinces and disciplines gathered in Regina, Sask., for a one-day workshop targeting this challenging issue. Keynote speaker Christiana Bratiotis, an associate professor of social work at the University of British Columbia, met with WCVM Today to talk about animal hoarding and why working together is imperative to successful intervention.

Q. How did you get involved in hoarding research?

I was a doctoral student at Boston University, and I had the opportunity to study the psychopathology and treatment— of object hoarding. My primary area of work is in object hoarding, and I’ve come to animal hoarding by way of that.

Q. What is hoarding?

Hoarding of objects is defined by three primary characteristics. It’s the acquisition of and failure to discard a large number of possessions that appear to be useless, or of limited value. The second part of the definition is an inability use the spaces in the home for the purposes intended because of the amassed amount of stuff. That means people can’t sleep in their beds or shower in their showers, perhaps because they’re mounded with objects. And the third part of object hoarding is that there is distress — emotional distress — or interference caused by the hoarding.

Q. You mentioned that object hoarding and animal hoarding are quite different. What are the ways in which the two differ?

Object hoarding is about inanimate things and animal hoarding is related to sentient beings. What’s similar is the attachment to something not people, but the source of that attachment is very different.

In animal hoarding the primary relationship is not with other humans, but instead, it’s often with animals. One of the other differences is … we see a level of impaired insight. The person is delusional in their beliefs about their relationship to the animal, where we don’t see that same kind of delusional belief as related to objects. People have strong attachments to their things, but they don’t actually believe they have magical powers associated with them, where that is something we sometimes see in animal hoarding.

Q. You mentioned that there isn’t as much research and understanding around animal hoarding. Why is that?

Research into object hoarding is only about 30 years old, so it’s still a new field itself. Animal hoarding, especially from the human and psychiatric perspective, is even newer than that — I would say in the last 15 to 20 years.

I think largely it’s for some of the reasons I was citing today. One reason is that we don’t have people who come forward and volunteer for research studies related to animal hoarding, both because of the shame and the potential societal stigma, but also because they’re quite afraid of prosecution. They’re worried about getting in trouble for the behaviour.

[There also] has not been the allocation of funding and attention to this as a primary mental health problem. Until that’s true, our science will stay quite limited.

Q. How might we overcome some of these obstacles?

I think one way is through dissemination of accurate information and good education about this problem — what we understand about the origins of the problem, what we understand about who it impacts and how it impacts them.

 I think it’s also important to make sure the myths that persist around animal hoarding are ameliorated so there isn’t inappropriate villainization. Instead, we [need to] understand that it’s a one-welfare — an animal and human problem — that needs to be addressed from both of those perspectives.

Q. Most people probably don’t set out to become animal hoarders. In your experience, how do people fall into this behaviour?

The two primary categories of people who hoard animals are the rescuer and the overburdened caregivers. The rescuer is someone who sets out to rescue animals, not as an official rescuer, but someone who sees animals in distress or poor conditions and knows that they need [rescuing] and takes on that role.

The second is the overburdened caregiver. That’s someone who just wants to provide care —often this is somebody who just wants to be a pet owner — and that gets out of control. For both the rescuer and the overburdened caregiver, it becomes too much. They get too many animals, it’s too expensive, it becomes too time-consuming, and they can’t keep up with the care. It just becomes this overwhelming situation, seemingly overnight to the person. It isn’t actually overnight, but that’s often how it seems [to them].

Q. What role does mental health play in the issue of animal hoarding?

We certainly know that people who hoard animals have limited awareness of the impact of their behaviour and its devastating consequences on the animals — and sometimes the devastating consequences on themselves. That limited insight is certainly reflective of mental health concerns and challenges. We also know that many people who hoard animals have other diagnosed mental health conditions. We commonly see lots of anxiety disorders and depression alongside this problem in addition to other mental health concerns.

We don’t really know what the chicken and the egg is here; we don’t know if having things like depression and anxiety leads someone to hoard animals, or if the hoarding of the animals leads someone to feel anxious and depressed — or if they’re just two co-occurring conditions. We can’t make any distinctions about that, but we certainly understand this as people who have impairment in their thinking, which results in troubling behaviour.

Q. You mentioned that object hoarding is an official, recognized disorder. But animal hoarding is not recognized in the same way. Why?

I think it’s not yet recognized because we don’t have enough science. We don’t actually know how many people this impacts, we don’t know when it starts, we don’t know the course of it, how it manifests, how does it get worse over time, the right interventions. 

Without any of those answers, we just don’t have the ability to even put animal hoarding forward for consideration by the American Psychiatric Association. I think it will be a long time coming with a lot of hard work, and it’s really going to take the animal community and the psychiatric community coming together to accomplish this.

Q. Why is collaboration between these different areas and organizations important for addressing the issue of animal hoarding?

For me, it’s critically important because no one discipline or one person working within that discipline has all of the expertise needed. We need the animal people who bring the animal expertise. We need the psychiatric people who bring that expertise. We need the social workers who bring the resource expertise. And we need the police who know how to respond immediately in crisis situations.

Not any one of us has all of that. Bringing that all together means we have more resources to bring to bear on this problem.

Q. How do workshops like this one affect the field and the research and those who are involved in this issue?

I think this day is incredibly important and very exciting. When I look out into the audience and I see such a diverse group of professionals, it gives me quite a lot of hope that we’ll leave our individual silos and orientations around this problem, and we’ll actually be able to come together in conversation.

I think where there’s conversation, then there’s understanding — and out of that, grows [the] will to make changes. That’s the fertile soil for the kind of science we need to advance our understanding, and then hopefully, to advance appropriate treatments and interventions.

Rigel Smith is a fourth-year student at the University of Regina’s School of Journalism and the 2019 summer research communications intern at the WCVM.