Many of us who own horses joke about buying or adopting more and becoming “that crazy horse person,” who has their own herd. In fact, there is a whole meme culture on this topic online. For a select few of the population, however, owning large numbers of animals is no joke. When individuals collect more animals than they can adequately care for, the behaviour crosses the line into what the mental health community calls hoarding disorder.
Hoarding disorder is a mental health problem which is classified under anxiety disorders in the DSM 5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders by the American Psychological Association, edition number 5). Animal hoarding and the hoarding of inanimate items are strongly correlated, and often animal hoarders also hoard other things like buckets, newspapers, cardboard boxes, photos, food, household appliances etc.
Typical characteristics of hoarding behaviour are:
1. Persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions regardless of their value or functionality.
2. Having large quantities of items that crowd the living space; or large numbers of animals that are inadequately cared for.
3. The accumulation of “stuff” or animals leads to distress for the individual or others that are close to the individual.
4. The behaviour interferes with daily living in some way (the individual cannot cook, eat or sleep in their own space due to the hoarded items/animals).
Hoarding behaviour in general usually begins in childhood, around age 10 or 11, and it worsens with age, unless help is sought early, and usually peaks between the ages of 55 and 90 years old. The disorder tends to run in families; about 50% of individuals that are diagnosed with hoarding disorder will have a relative with it. Approximately 75% of all hoarders will also have another co-occurring mental health disorder. Anxiety, depression and social anxiety are all very common co-occurring mental health conditions in hoarders (DSM 5).
Individuals who are prone to hoarding have difficulty making decisions, tend to be perfectionists, have social anxiety and often have great difficulty planning or organizing projects or time. It is thought that there may be a relationship between ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and hoarding disorder due to the problems with planning and organizing.
A typical animal hoarder usually believes they are doing a good thing taking in unwanted animals. They feel overly empathic toward the animals they take in, and see themselves as solely responsible for these animals. They want to be a good animal owner; in fact, they may want to be the best animal owner, which is why they cannot give up an animal (perfectionism). The result is often animals kept in an inappropriate space that is unhealthy or unsafe, being underfed and un-vetted.
Studies of animal hoarders show that their behaviour sometimes begins after an illness, disability or death of a significant other. They view their animals as a source of love and a substitute for all they have lost in their lives. For many, keeping their animals appears to guarantee a conflict-free relationship with another living being.
Some individuals are aware of their hoarding behaviour and have tried to manage it by themselves in the past. Usually this fails because the anxiety associated with getting rid of items or animals is so intense the individual cannot tolerate the discomfort they feel. Often, they give up trying to contain their hoarding behaviour and instead withdraw from life and social situations. Because of the anxiety they feel, anything that appears judgmental or critical from others just increases their stress and discomfort.
Other individuals have a lack of insight into their own behaviour and do not see anything wrong with the situation they are in. For these people, it is often family members or friends who try to intervene and help. This rarely works though, because the hoarder cannot see their behaviour as problematic. Family members may increase conflict with the individual in order to get them to see “reality,” but the individual appears fixed in his/her rigid beliefs.
If you know someone you suspect is hoarding animals, you need to approach the issue with compassion. Remember, hoarding is related to anxiety. Those who hoard usually experience embarrassment about their situation and feel uncomfortable when others see how they live. They have clutter, often at the expense of livable space, feel sad or ashamed after acquiring additional items and they are often in debt. Hoarding equines, in particular, can quickly cause costs to spiral out of control resulting in anything from starvation to abandonment (due to eviction) for the horses.
The usual treatment for hoarding disorder is psychotherapy or psychotherapy combined with medication to manage depression/anxiety, ADHD or social anxiety symptoms. Depending on whether your friend or family member has insight into their hoarding or not there are two different approaches:
1. For individuals who admit their animal ownership has become too much for them:
- Educate yourself about hoarding disorder. Make sure you understand what your loved one is feeling.
- Validate their feelings of being emotionally overwhelmed and anxious. For example: “It must be incredibly hard for you to think of letting go of these animals.”
- Provide support and encouragement to seek help. Say: “I want to help. When you’re ready, let’s make you a doctor’s appointment to find a specialist that can work with you.” Most family physicians have a list of therapists they refer to.
- Let your loved one know that you will assist them, but will not push them or force them. Individuals with hoarding disorder are usually very sensitive to being controlled and will resist if it feels like they are being forced.
2. For individuals who lack insight into their hoarding behaviour:
- Understand that you cannot legally (or ethically) force someone to do something they do not want to do.
- If you try to take your loved one’s animals without their consent, they may become angry, aggressive or abusive.
- If they do not believe their animal ownership or animal care giving is a problem, then you may have to make a choice between your relationship and doing what is in the best interests of the animals. This can be extremely hard. You may want to seek emotional support for yourself through counselling.
- If you believe the animals in your loved one’s care are in danger, you should consult with the SPCA or local police in your area (see contact info below).
For more information on Hoarding Disorder:
Who You Gonna Call?
What should you do if you witness animal cruelty or neglect?
There is no doubt that there are holes in Canada’s animal protection network. Confusion as to laws and enforcement abound. While federal legislation exists, in general, provincial laws usually have broader, stronger protections for animals than the Criminal Code and include specific standards of care that animal owners must adhere to (which the Criminal Code does not).
Because of this, enforcement officials in provinces that have broad, comprehensive animal welfare legislation tend to lay charges under the provincial law more frequently than under the Criminal Code. Notably, not all provinces have such animal protection acts and it falls to the RCMP or police to follow up on complaints, and knowledge of livestock, particularly equines may be lacking. While prosecuting under provincial law may well result in a greater number of cases brought before the courts, it does mean that convictions, including potential prohibitions against ownership, are limited to the province in which the offence occurred.
For decades, investigations in the majority of provinces and territories were conducted by the provincial Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCAs) who were specifically charged with upholding the provincial animal protection acts as well as the animal cruelty section of the Criminal Code. However, due to court challenges and funding issues, a number of SPCAs, including most recently, the Ontario SPCA, no longer conduct inspections or investigations. Instead, animal protection, including livestock, falls under the purview of the Solicitor General in Ontario, the Department of the Environment in Nova Scotia and, frequently, government agricultural departments. So the agency to contact depends entirely on the province or territory you live in.
Outside Calgary and Edmonton:
800-455-9003 – select option #1
Calgary Humane Society
Animal Care & Control Centre
SPCA Provincial Call Centre
Animal Care Line
Winnipeg Humane Society Animal Cruelty Line
Local RCMP/RNC detachment
Department of Natural Resources – Animal Care via Crime Stoppers
Provincial animal abuse hotline 833-9ANIMAL (926-4625)
Prince Edward Island
PEI Humane Society
902-892-1190, ext. 21, ask to speak to an Animal Protection Officer
email@example.com, subject line “ATTN Animal Protection Officer”
Ministère de l’Agriculture,
des Pêcheries et de l’Alimentation du Québec
Government Agriculture Branch
Department of Environment
In an emergency or during hours in which an agency may be closed, call your local police department or RCMP.
Once you’ve contacted a protection agency, the following will occur. A file is opened up similar to any police investigation. To lawfully do this, first-hand information is required including: date and time of incident, address of the alleged offence and directions on how to get there if it’s a rural location, a description of the owner, details of what you saw (hearsay or second-hand information is not sufficient), plus photos or video if you were able to safely take them, and vehicle identification if applicable.
Complaints via email or social media may be made but, to open an investigation, an officer will need to contact you for further details so do provide contact information.
A Happy Ending After Hoarding
Valour, in April 2018, had clearly suffered extreme neglect.
In April 2018, the Alberta SPCA received a call from a concerned citizen who discovered several skinny horses tucked away, far from the public eye, on a neighbouring property. When Peace Officer Karen Stevenson arrived, she found one dead horse, and others in a state of terrible neglect.
A Paint stallion named Valour was one of the horses that was wasting away, scavenging for something to eat. Stevenson described the moment she met him, dry-lipped, with a twig hanging from his mouth. “The first time I saw him, he walked up to me and put his head in my chest, and he sighed,” she said.
With a heavy heart, Stevenson had to leave the horses there that night, while plans were made to remove them and find them safe lodgings. “I took a minute and rubbed his head and he sighed. I told him, ‘Fight like you have never fought before. Give me one more night. I will be back tomorrow with a lot of good people who are going to get you out of this nightmare.’ When I turned back, he was looking at me for a while, and then he just dropped his head as if he was going to give up. In my five years with the Alberta SPCA, this was the hardest time I’ve ever had walking away from animals.”
A team from the Alberta SPCA arrived at the property the next morning to seize the horses and get them help. However, Stevenson said her heart sank when she first arrived and couldn’t find Valour. She was convinced he hadn’t made it through the night. “I walked the field and then I saw the saddest picture ever. He was standing in the willows trying to eat twigs and dry leaves.”
They weren’t sure how they’d get the horses loaded, but all it took was a pail of grain and a whistle, and the horses came stampeding over. “I had to run through the snow. I thought they were going to run me over. I have never seen horses so hungry.”
The horses were transported to an equine veterinarian to begin their road to recovery. For Valour, however, the prognosis was still very dire, as he was classified as a one out of nine on the body condition scale.
“They went right to the feed,” explained Dr. Melissa Hittinger, a veterinarian contracted by the Alberta SPCA. “But by that afternoon [Valour] went down, and he stayed down for over a month, on and off.”
During this time, Valour developed extensive rub sores all over his body, and he was losing hair. Often in situations like this, horses are euthanized, but Valour seemed to have a fighting spirit. The medical team attached a harness to the stallion and would lift him back to his feet, hoping that he just needed a little time to regain his strength. “In our experience, once they are down, they are done,” said Dr. Hittinger. “With him [though] it was like, ‘Oh, thanks, I needed that,’ and then he just tootled off.”
Even as he healed, there were a few times it seemed Valour would not recover. But each time the team contemplated euthanasia, they would find him back on his feet. He was not willing to give up, so neither were they.
Slowly, Valour started to regain the muscle he had lost, the weight came back on and his personality emerged. His impressive recovery meant that he was ready to move to a permanent home. The decision was made to send him to Michele Keehn to use at her equine-facilitated healing ranch, Infiniti Trails 4 Healing. “He’s very vibrant, strong and curious, but very sure,” she said. “He’s got this sureness about himself, this confidence.”
After his move, Stevenson went to visit Valour, and fighting back tears, walked up to him, put her arms around his neck and whispered “Hi buddy. I told you I would get you better. I told you to fight hard and that we would get you a better life. You did so good. You did it.”
Stevenson rarely gets to see the animals she helps save once they arrive at caretaking facilities, and after that, most are gifted to organizations which find new homes for them. Alberta SPCA Peace Officers are not a part of that process. “It wasn’t just me, it was everybody [at the Alberta SPCA]. It was everybody who comes to work every day. It was everybody who puts in hours and hears sad stories and just works tirelessly to get this result. I can guarantee you that every Peace Officer who starts their day tries to make stories like this happen.” ~ Alberta SCPA