Understanding why people keep too many pets is key to circumventing hoarding. Photo by Christina Weese.

Multi-disciplinary intervention critical for animal hoarding cases

There are potentially two million hoarders in Canada, and while scientists have gained a better understanding of people who excessively collect objects, research and awareness of animal hoarding is still limited.

By Rigel Smith

A workshop in Regina, Sask., which took place in June 2019, helped to address that lack of knowledge in society. The day-long event brought together professionals from both human service and animal welfare disciplines to focus on animal hoarding – a disorder that exhibits much differently than object hoarding.

Object hoarding is caused by a hoarding disorder that impels people to collect too many objects and makes it difficult for them to discard items. With cases of animal hoarding, people collect an excessive number of animals — to the point where they can no longer provide adequate care.

“[For] the Saskatchewan SPCA … one of our priorities is education and working collaboratively,” says Frances Wach, executive director of the Saskatchewan SPCA and one of the workshop’s organizers. “In terms of working on hoarding, if we work collaboratively, we can meet the needs of both people and animals.”

The workshop was organized by a planning committee with representatives from the Saskatchewan SPCA, the Saskatchewan Veterinary Medical Association (SVMA), Animal Protection Services of Saskatchewan (APSS), Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA), Community Safety and Well-being, and the province’s Ministry of Agriculture.

The workshop is the first step towards better collaboration between human and animal health sectors. There is a knowledge gap present between the two sectors that needs to be addressed to ensure people and animals in animal hoarding situations receive adequate care.

“I think the committee itself is a good example of a collaborative and collective approach to getting the workshop done,” says Wach.

The event attracted about 60 attendees from various backgrounds including social work, animal protection services and animal shelters, fire and police, public health, veterinary medicine, and mental health and addictions.

The day featured keynote presentations, a session highlighting Saskatchewan agencies that work to identify and help people with elevated risk levels, a case-study panel discussion, and a forum for feedback and recommendations.

One of the workshop’s keynote speakers was Dr. Colleen Marion (WCVM ’99), a Manitoba veterinarian who has served on several animal welfare committees at provincial and national levels.

The other keynote speaker was Christiana Bratiotis, an associate professor in the School of Social Work at the University of British Columbia, who believes animal hoarding is an issue that demands a multi-disciplinary approach.

“No one discipline or [one] person working within that discipline has all of the expertise needed,” says Bratiotis. “It’s really going to take the animal community and the psychiatric community coming together to accomplish this.”

Bratiotis says events like the workshop help foster advancements in the field.

“Where there’s conversation, then there’s understanding, and out of that grows [the] will to make changes.”

Erin Wasson, veterinary social worker at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM), says members of the college’s team are working with representatives from other organizations to address animal hoarding situations. 

“We are bringing veterinary social work and veterinarians into the homes of individuals struggling with animal hoarding and using our unique collaboration to partner with animal protection agencies to address a dangerous and serious gap in human and animal health services,” says Wasson.

She adds that without on-the-ground mental health services, very few individuals involved in these cases would receive the care they desperately need.

It’s also important for veterinarians — and everyone else involved — to understand the distinct roles that people play in these cases.

“The WCVM [has many vets] that have all been called out onto calls where there’s an animal health concern,” says Wasson. “But the human health concern is what is driving the animal health concern.”

There is still a long road ahead when it comes to engaging both human and animal health services in this issue. Wasson says oftentimes, mental health professionals don’t have the tools necessary to enter animal hoarding situations and to provide proper care. This can leave service providers at-risk if they’re not properly vaccinated or clad in personal protective equipment.

Additionally, without knowledge of best practice assessment tools, it can be a challenge to appropriately gauge the level of risk to individuals living in circumstances that are often a combination of object and animal hoarding.

Wasson’s primary goal is the inclusion of all sectors and educating everyone on how to properly address the issue. In Saskatchewan, she points out that only a handful of people have the necessary background and experience to intervene in animal hoarding situations.

“For a long time, the human health and animal health people did not get together to talk about much,” says Wasson. “The thing I advocate for the most is the inclusion of animal health and animal protection people at the same tables as the human health and the human protection people.”

One of those human health workers is Doug Harder, manager of emergency and transitional services with the Saskatchewan Health Authority’s Mental Health and Addictions Services in Saskatoon. Harder got involved in the event because of his connection to Wasson and his collaboration with her around the veterinary social work program and exposure to the cases she was seeing.

“It’s pretty obvious that mental health has a key piece in this area,” says Harder. “[This workshop] gives us a deeper understanding of the attachment issues that these individuals have with their animals.”

Harder says it’s important to understand all aspects of an animal hoarding situation and events like the workshop help to achieve that goal.

“If I’m not educated in what I’m walking into, I’m not going to understand what I’m doing,” says Harder. “We just really need to have a high level of understanding – it leads to better intervention and better patient care.”

Harder believes multi-disciplinary workshops like this should continue.

“I don’t think we realize how prominent [animal hoarding] is. We really haven’t conceptualized what hoarding is about, so exposure in this kind of workshop exposes us to the pathology as well as the challenges that the other agencies have.”

For Wasson, seeing how a simple conversation evolved into a day-long workshop was encouraging.

“This started out as just myself and the former executive director of Animal Protection Services of Saskatchewan talking about a case,” she says. “And it’s blossomed into multiple agencies sitting on a panel and going through a case example together. That’s incredible.”

Harder agrees.

“This type of workshop really empowers some of us to really just keep working away at this … this gives you hope.”