In mid-February, animal control officers from Long Beach Animal Care Services (LBACS) pulled 15 cats from a hoarding situation, which is still being monitored and investigated. The cats, each one black or slate gray and possibly related, are emerging from their timidity and fearfulness, thanks to the care from shelter volunteers and staff. A few are ready for adoption, and one has already gone to an adoptive home.

But what qualifies as hoarding? It’s typically identified when one or more individuals house more animals than they can adequately care for. It’s tragic for everyone involved—for the animals, of course, but also for the humans who are hoarding. Most of them are unwilling to believe that they’re doing anything but good for the animals. The ASPCA states that a quarter of a million animals yearly—cats, dogs, rabbits, birds, farm animals—fall victim to hoarding.

two slate-gray cats curl cup in a kennel, a round door next to it.
Two cats rescued from a hoarding situation in Long Beach huddle against each other for comfort. Photo by Kate Karp.

“It doesn’t have to be a terrifying number of animals, like in the triple digits,” LBACS manager Staycee Dains said. “It can happen with anywhere from 10 or more, and it has to do with the mentality of the person who is hoarding. These are people who accumulate animals from off the street, friends and families, and online posts, with the intention of helping an animal.”

Dains did not use the dehumanizing term “hoarders.”

“It’s kind of mean sounding,” she said. “I wish there were another word we could use.”

Why do people hoard animals?

The knee-jerk reaction to a hoarding situation is generally one of absolute concern for the animals and anger toward someone perceived as a monster, clueless or having mental problems. The first two descriptors are inaccurate and unkind; the latter can be expressed in a hurtful manner but is actually not inaccurate. Dains described animal hoarding as love that’s become pathological. People who hoard pets, she said, often believe that they are helping the animal—in fact, they believe that they’re the only ones who can help the animal. They refuse to relinquish them to a shelter for fear that the animals will be euthanized. If they offer any up for adoption, which isn’t often, they rarely approve of the adopter. When they do, they quickly collect more to “replace” the ones who were adopted.

If animals die in the home, the human still won’t let them go.

“They’ll store them in a box, in a refrigerator—everything from the utterly contained to the utterly grotesque—the animal lies where it dies,” Dains said.

People hoard animals for a number of reasons. Dains cited trauma from a loss earlier in their lives, leaving them with a seemingly irrational fear of losing anything else. The ASPCA also considers paranoia, delusional thinking, depression, attachment disorders related to personality disorders, and a compulsion to rescue the animals from life on the street.

“What we do know is that something is triggered in a person that makes them almost phobic of losing anything else,” Dains said. “With items, it’s one thing—but with animals, the emotional attachment is so strong and fear is so visceral that they can’t face adoption or placement—even letting someone else take the pet to the vet.”

Animals suffering neglect or abuse are uppermost in importance when it comes to action, but Dains encourages concern for the humans involved as well.

“Every hoarding case I’ve been involved with has been heartbreaking,” she said. “You just wish so hard that [the people who are hoarding] could see what you can see. They can’t see that the litter box has no litter and is full of feces. They don’t register the smell. And the people are suffering just as much as the animals. Sometimes, you don’t find out until the person has passed away. You cannot help but feel a deep sorrow and desperation.”

Animal hoarding affects the health of both pets and people

Animal hoarding is a mental health issue and it can also be physically unhealthy to both humans and animals. Toxoplasmosis and other parasitic diseases, fleas and ringworm can transmit to humans, and species-specific illnesses such as feline leukemia, canine parvo and distemper can spread among the pets and cause extreme illness or death. Ammonia from urine can cause respiratory illness in pets and humans, including any living in the immediate vicinity. Neglecting to take a sick pet to the vet and not spaying or neutering them even if shelter vouchers are offered exacerbates unsanitary conditions.

dirty RV with multiple dogs peering outside
The Humane Society of the United States assists the Dixie County Sheriff’s Office with a large-scale alleged severe neglect case of approximately 140 dogs on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, near Old Town, Fla. (Photo by Meredith Lee/The HSUS)

Humans in the house can be so accustomed to their living state that they won’t notice the odor or the condition and number of the animals.

“We’ve seen people hoard themselves out of their own house,” Dains said. She described a case in which an individual moved into an RV—their living space had been taken over by cats, all of whom were completely unsocialized.

“We managed to save them all with extraordinary help from our volunteers and Helen Sanders CatPAWS,” she said. “Our volunteers spent hours and days and months trying to get the cats socialized and find placement for all in homes, rescues or sanctuaries.”

Legal aspects of animal hoarding

Showing compassion for the person hoarding animals takes nothing away from what you naturally feel for the pets, but it doesn’t excuse what happens to the animals. Every state in the U.S. has laws against hoarding pets; in most states, it’s considered a misdemeanor, and in others, it can be a misdemeanor or a felony.

In California, hoarding cases can be prosecuted as either, as described in Section 597 (b) of the state’s penal code. Although pet hoarding isn’t usually intentional abuse, the code puts it in the same class, punishable by imprisonment, fines or both.

In 2006, animal control officers took 299 animals from Noah’s Ark, an unlicensed kennel rescue located at 1347 Redondo Ave. in East Long Beach. (The facility has no relation to any other area businesses of that name). The facility was reported to be extremely hot without air circulation, and its walls and floor were coated with urine and feces, there was insufficient clean water for the pets, and many of the animals were exhibiting symptoms of respiratory infection and had open wounds or other injuries.

Police officers and animal-control officers testified during the high-profile trial that the odor of urine was overwhelming and caused them to dry-heave. The owner of the facility and a volunteer were convicted of three counts of cruelty and received jail sentences. They were also prohibited from owning any animals.

Notably, there was no evidence or testimony by a veterinarian that the owner of Noah’s Ark or its volunteers deliberately caused the conditions in their facility. As horrible as those conditions were described to be, the owner denied that there was any sort of neglect in the kennel and insisted that she had been saving a large number of pets in distress or with any sort of issues, keeping them “from being euthanized, and kept alive.”

Animal-hoarding situations require compassion and proactive measures for humans, too

Happily, most of the Noah’s Ark cats and dogs survived thanks to medical care from LBACS and nonprofit organizations such as Friends of Long Beach Animals. The cats and dogs went to adoptive homes or legitimate rescues. It’s unknown, however, whether the kennel owner or volunteers received any post-intervention counseling or assistance.

ASPCA stated that judges sometimes impose conditions such as counseling in order to help people who hoard pets. Dains said that San Jose had a task force that included psychologists and city services, and the team took care to include the people who had received penalties. Long Beach doesn’t have a task force, but Dains said that animal-control officers are diligent in responding to the individual needs of the humans involved.

Typically, the city’s officers attempt contact with the owner and sometimes with neighbors. If contact is unsuccessful, they leave a notice asking the pet owner to contact them, and they follow up until they can verify conditions. Most people, Dains said, respond to the notices; warrants are issued on rare occasions.

“Our officers truly feel that the owners love those animals, so it’s important to have someone responding,” she said. “They’ll work with the owner if they can, especially if the person’s cooperative and the officers are compassionate and generous.”

Animal safety is, of course, a maximum priority. The officers note if any are in distress and need immediate veterinary care, which of them are well enough to be immediately admitted to the shelter, and which need to be humanely euthanized. If the situation doesn’t seem urgent, the officers will provide the owners with spay/neuter vouchers and ask if they’d be willing to give their pets up or leave them in foster care for a while.

If violations continue or if any animals, children or older people are in danger, the shelter will report to specific agencies, the city medical team, special-service officers and pet rescues. They’ll enact code enforcement when absolutely necessary.

“We do a lot of problem-solving before enforcement,” Dains said. “Most people want help and aren’t deliberately trying to do what they’re doing. It is critical that you take a personal approach to it.”

Community members are frequently helpful in identifying hoarding situations. Family members can be helpful as well, but Dains noted that often, people don’t want to get a relative in trouble or cause them more pain, even if they know they need help.

“If you know someone who needs help, don’t wait—reach out, because they clearly are not able to help themselves,” Dains said. “That’s Compassion Saves.”

If you think that someone you know of has more pets than they can reasonably care for, is living in extremely unsanitary conditions, or frequently takes in animals from the street and won’t seek outside assistance for them, please contact the shelter at [email protected]. If the animal is in immediate danger, call 562-570-7387. Animal control officers will respond both during and after business hours.

14 cats rescued from hoarding situation need caring homes