Dear Dr. Thompson: Can you help me with a serious problem? I am witness to a family member who is a hoarder of animals. There are so many and some that are old with incontinence problems, that the home is littered with feces and smelling strongly of urine. This home obviously needs to be cleaned. But its owners need to know how to prevent the problem from recurring. Can you give me some direction as to organizing this home so that the pets can remain there, but the mess doesn’t repeat?
Unfortunately, you are dealing with a very complex situation that involves a mental health issue, animal cruelty, and a risk to public health. You did not give an estimate of how many animals are in the house, but I assume it is a significant number and there is no reasonable way for these pets to remain with this person
Most cases of animal hoarding start out well intentioned. There is a desire to help these animals, but as is the case with many mental illnesses, the behavior is taken to extremes. Often hoarders fail to realize their behavior is putting the health and welfare of the animals in jeopardy. This becomes a cruelty case since the presence of feces and urine throughout the environment put everyone in the house at risk for illness. The large numbers of animals in the house also create significant conflict between the animals for food and water. Many times these animals are malnourished and dehydrated.
Often with hoarding situations the animals are not given adequate access to medical care. Financially this person is probably not capable of caring for so many animals. In my experience with hoarding situations, there will also be animals in the house that are semi-feral who cannot be handled or caught until they become deathly ill.
This house is also a risk to your family member’s health. With the house being littered with feces, the risk of transmission of disease is high. Many of the pets may carry intestinal parasites that can be transmitted to people. In this situation infestation with ringworm is very common, which can also be contagious to people. The feces and urine also create high levels of ammonia and other noxious gases that are damaging to lungs for people and pets.
I am not qualified to speak to the extent and treatment of the mental illness aspect of this condition, but your family member needs professional help immediately. Simply cleaning the house will only restart the process. You also mentioned trying to keep these animals in this house. This is not an option either. Humane agencies may need be to be part of the process to see that the animals are safely removed from the house and given any care they may need. I wish you the best of luck with a very difficult situation.
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