Animal Hoarding

A good friend of mine was a hoarder to the point that she had moved all the furniture, except the bed, out of the house and filled the entire house with cages. Her house has become so bad that in her words — she “hadn’t seen the floor of her house for the longest time.” She doesn’t even remember the color. Most of it is covered with newspaper.

Rescued African Grey

This was not a healthy situation for her or the birds and medical intervention was necessary. Unfortunately, this happens far more than is generally know, as compulsive-obsessive animal hoarders cannot control their impulse to accept more birds into their homes – even though they have long lost the ability to properly care for them.

Family and friends are strongly encouraged to take immediate steps to get your loved one help before their and the animals’ welfare begins to suffer and government agencies become involved in the rescue of the suffering animals.

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    Animal hoarding is a mental illness recognized as a psychological condition. It is considered a variant of obsessive-compulsive disorder rather than deliberate cruelty towards animals.

    Rescued Conures

    Animal hoarding involves keeping higher than usual numbers of animals as pets without having the ability to properly house or care for them, while at the same time denying this inability.

    Hoarders are deeply attached to their pets, and find it extremely difficult to let the pets go. They typically cannot comprehend that they are harming their pets by failing to provide them with proper care.

    Hoarders tend to believe that they provide the right amount of care for their pets.

    The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals provides a “Hoarding Prevention Team”, which works with hoarders to help them attain a manageable and healthy number of pets/.

    Characteristics of a hoarder

    An animal hoarder is distinguished from a person who keeps an unusually large number of pets, but who cares for them properly. A hoarder is distinguished from an animal breeder, who would have a large number of animals as a result of their business.

    According to one study, the distinguishing feature is that a hoarder “fails to provide the animals with adequate food, water, sanitation, and veterinary care, and … is in denial about this inability to provide adequate care.”

    Along with other compulsive hoarding behaviours, it is linked in the DSM-IV to obsessive-compulsive disorder and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. Alternatively, animal hoarding could be related to addiction, dementia, or even focal delusion.

    Dangers of hoarding animals

    The presence of so many animals is dangerous both for the animals and the hoarders. At the very least, because hoarders, by definition, fail to clean up after the animals, urine and feces accumulate.

    Feces are a vector for a number of diseases. Ammonia from the urine rises to unhealthy concentrations in the air.

    OSHA set the permissible exposure limit for ammonia at 50 parts per million; 300 is life-threatening.[4] In a particularly noteworthy case, the ammonia concentration of the air in one hoarder’s house (even after ventilation) was still 152 ppm.

    Animal hoarding is also a serious animal welfare issue, cats – in communities throughout the United States.[1] Hoarders keep abnormally large numbers of animals for which they may not provide even the most basic care.

    The sometimes hundreds of dogs or cats kept by a single hoarder generally show signs of neglect such as severe malnutrition, untreated medical conditions including open sores, cancers, and advanced dental and eye diseases, and severe psychological distress.

    In 80 percent of the cases studied, authorities found either dead or severely ill animals in hoarders’ homes.[5]

    Animal hoarding is also a public health threat, as hoarding creates highly unsanitary conditions on the properties of hoarders.

    Legal solutions

    Many states have no legal definition for animal hoarding (though localities may have a limit of the number and types of pets), and many people are unaware of the severity of neglect in typical hoarding situations.

    Animals rescued from hoarders must often be cared for at the rescuer’s expense, and the high cost of doing this can also act as a disincentive for prosecuting hoarding cases. These factors can make it a lengthy and challenging legal process to secure a verdict against an animal hoarder charged with animal cruelty.

    In 2005, the Animal Legal Defense Fund won a significant legal victory in the Sanford, North Carolina case ALDF v. Woodley. A unique North Carolina state law allows any person or organization to sue an animal abuser.

    In April 2005, the judge in the case granted an injunction allowing ALDF and county authorities to remove more than 300 diseased, neglected and abused dogs from the home of a Sanford couple.

    ALDF was granted custody of the animals, and the hoarders were found guilty of animal cruelty charges. ALDF subsequently won the right to restrict the hoarders’ visitation rights while the dogs remained in custody during ongoing appeals

    Acquiring Animals – Benevolent Caregiver or Hoarder

    I will not take in any more birds! I have enough! I have no more room, money or time! That had been my mantra —all perfectly legitimate reasons, don’t you think?

    They are valid, yet they don’t hold up when I encounter a bird in such great need. I have been accused of taking in too many birds—a nice way of putting it, isn’t it?

    What they are saying, of course, is that I’m bordering on being a hoarder. To that I reply that being a hoarder is not about how many animals you have—it’s about how you care for them.

    A person can have only a few animals and be a hoarder; he or she can have many more and not be one. The difference? Care and attention.

    Hoarding is not about the number of animals but about how you care for them.

    Whether we accept them or not, ee all know our limits and whether or not we have reached them. We know what kind of attention our birds require, what our vet bills are likely to be for a year, how much we spend on toys, food, cages, what our disposable income is—all of that. (If we don’t, we have some work to do!)

    If we are at our financial limits, are aware that any more pets will put us over that limit, and we still acquire them, then we are destined to become hoarders. No amount of attention or love will keep the cages, floors, walls, food dishes or toys any cleaner. And no amount of cleaning will give the birds any more attention. They are both necessary.

    People with multiple birds often must work—that’s just a fact of life. Little beaks need to be fed. If we are fortunate enough to be able to stay home, or work part time, we can keep up with all that work and still find time to give each the attention it deserves. If not, we must consider very carefully whether or not to assume the responsibility of another bird, no matter how well intentioned we are.

    So what are some indications that a hoarding situation might exist? Gary Petronek and The Avian Welfare Resource Center at Tuft’s University define hoarders as follows:

    “Animal hoarders often masquerade as ‘rescuers’ and describe their homes as ‘shelters’ or ‘refuges.’ But hoarding is not about legitimate animal sheltering or rescue; it is a serious mental illness that jeopardizes the health and welfare of the animals and people involved.

    The medical profession now recognizes animal hoarding as a psychological disease that is closely related to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (HARE) defines an animal hoarder as a person who has:

    • Accumulated a large number of animals, overwhelming that person’s ability to provide even minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation and veterinary care.
    • Failed to acknowledge the deteriorating conditions of the animals (including disease, starvation, and even death) and household environment (severe overcrowding, very unsanitary conditions).
    • Failed to recognize the negative effect of the condition on his or her own health and well-being and on that of other household members.”

    Let’s take a look at these issues.

    Hygiene and nutrition

    Birds are messy, aren’t they? They throw seed, push food and toys off counters and tables, and scatter cereal and food from the tops of cages as they fly by and jump from place to place—sometimes doing all of these just for fun! I spend several hours a day cleaning cages, surfaces, floors, food and water cups—the list goes on.

    More time is then spent cutting up fruits and vegetables for them, preparing pasta and filling cups with greens, just to have them squished under my feet as I walk on them. But none of that matters.

    They are getting what they need, and I’m happy that I can give them a better life than they had previously known. Birds require many different types of foods. Seeds are not enough. Fresh fruits, vegetables, greens, Avi-Cakes, Nutri-berries, sugar-free cereals, nutritious treats, pellets—they all should be a part of a bird’s daily diet. And they need vitamins and minerals in their diets to be healthy.

    Both cleanliness and fulfilling their nutritional needs are part of any bird owner’s responsibility. Messy as they are, all the work they generate—that is the price we pay for the love we give and receive from our feathered companions, no matter how we acquired them.

    Veterinary care

    Excellent, qualified avian vets are often difficult to locate. If you are fortunate enough to be near to one, count your blessings. That person often means the difference between life and death for your bird. If not, make the effort to find one.

    Educate yourself on illnesses, diseases—everything you can about birds in general and your species in particular. (Go on the AAV website to find an avian vet and obtain information.)

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      Are avian vets expensive? Of course, they are. They’ve not only gone to veterinary school, they’ve done post-graduate work in avian medicine, sometimes spending years studying with an avian veterinarian before branching off into their own practices.

      But that’s not the only expense.

      Think of the equipment these doctors have had to purchase in order to care for your bird properly. Then there are the overhead of the office and staff and the medications he must have on hand at all times.

      Like any doctor, he must pay for all of these things and eke out his own living as well. And just as any human doctor must, he has no choice but to pass these costs on to his clients. Most will make their charges fair so that they do not over-charge their clients. You alone can determine if the vet overcharges and if his charges are worth the care you receive.

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        Are you a hoarder? Here is what to do…

        If you think that you might be a hoarder, or on the verge of going in that direction, ask those who know you if they think you are.

        If so, get some help with this problem and find homes for some of your animals. If not, you will have to determine how you deal with people who seem to think that anyone who has more than one or two animals is a hoarder and put you on the defensive when you are discussing your birds.

        People who know me know I have more than one bird; yet, people I meet or who have not seen me for a while seem to get some odd satisfaction out of finding out just how many birds I have so that they can stare at me, wide-eyed, repeat the number, and then insinuate that I am a hoarder. My reply now is, “Let’s just say I have a few birds.” That usually ends the inquiry. Close friends, and those who also rescue or adopt birds, are the exception. There’s no judgment there—only understanding and care.

        The cockatiels I have adopted have been in dire straits. A bonded pair lived with three heavy smokers in a tiny, horrible cage, with only cheap parakeet seed to eat.

        Another lived with an elderly woman who just doted on him; unfortunately, she fed him mostly cheese and crackers (an indicator to me that her own diet was sadly neglected). She had to go into a nursing home, but had given him so much love that he was extremely affectionate—not a candidate for a large rescue organization. He would have withered and died under such an abandoned circumstance. One had lived with a college student whose girlfriend had given the bird to him. He received no attention.

        The latest had many health issues, was close to death when I adopted her in the summer of 2010. There are also several with damaged wings or legs. One pair, unable to fly, were forced to endure bullying from others in the aviary and fight for every scrap of food they could obtain.


        No matter how well intentioned some people may be, at some point, if they keep acquiring animals, they will be in over their heads – financially, energy-wise and time-wise. This is when a loving caregiver transitions into a hoarder.

        Now each has his or her own roomy cage, with plenty of nourishing food, an abundance of toys, swings, spirals and play areas to explore, a great deal of time out of the cage, and copious amounts of love and attention. The handicapped birds have platforms on which to rest.

        I can’t take them all in, I know, but if I have the time and energy to care for them, and the occasion arises in which they will either come to me or go to a person who is already overloaded or to a shelter or rescue aviary, I will take them in. I have limited myself to cockatiels due to the room and cage size they require. Mostly though, this choice is a result of my passion for cockatiels.

        So, am I a hoarder? Of course not. I have thirteen birds. To some that seems like a few—to some, many. I will know when I can no longer care for my sweet birds. The joy I have received from these little ones is immeasurable.

        The time, energy and money are negligible compared to the love and companionship they bestow upon me and the satisfaction I derive from knowing I have improved their lives and circumstances. They have allowed me to finally know my purpose in life: to care for those whom no one else wanted.

        When I put an animal’s needs ahead of my own, I am much richer for it. They have taught me (after too many years not understanding this concept) that there is really very little in life of true value: one’s family and home.

        And these birds are indeed family, aren’t they? Everything else is trivial. So what is our reward for all the time and care we give and money we spend? A song, a chirp, a kiss, a scritch on a soft, feathered head. That’s enough, isn’t it?


        Frost RO, Gross RC (1993), The hoarding of possessions. Behav Res Ther 31(4):367-381.

        Frost RO, Hartl TL (1996), A cognitive-behavioral model of compulsive hoarding. Behav Res Ther 34(4):341-350 [see comment].

        Frost RO, Hartl TL, Christian R, Williams N (1995), The value of possessions in compulsive hoarding: patterns of use and attachment. Behav Res Ther 33(8):897-902.

        Frost RO, Kim HJ, Morris C et al. (1998), Hoarding, compulsive buying and reasons for saving. Behav Res Ther 36(7-8):657-664 [see comment].

        Frost RO, Krause MS, Steketee G (1996), Hoarding and obsessive-compulsive symptoms. Behav Modif 20(1):116-132.

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          Frost RO, Steketee G (1998), Hoarding: clinical aspects and treatment strategies. In: Obsessive Compulsive Disorders: Practical Management, 3rd ed., Jenike MA, Baer L, Minichiello WE, eds. St. Louis: Mosby Inc., pp533-554.

          Frost RO, Williams L, Steketee G (1999), Compulsive buying: relationship to OCD and OCD hoarding. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, Washington D.C., March.

          Hwang JP, Tsai SJ, Yang CH et al. (1998), Hoarding behavior in dementia. A preliminary report. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry 6(4):285-289.

          Lockwood R (1994), The psychology of animal collectors. Trends 9:18-21.

          Lockwood R, Cassidy B (1988), Killing with kindness? The Humane Society News of the Humane Society of the United States. 1-5.

          Meagher E, Frost RO, Riskind J (1999), Compulsive lottery, scratch ticket, and Keno gambling: its relation to OCD, hoarding, impulsivity, and the urge to buy. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy, Toronto, Nov.

          Patronek GJ (1999), Hoarding of animals: an under-recognized public health problem in a difficult-to-study population. Public Health Rep 114(1):81-87.

          Summerfeldt LJ, Richter MA, Antony MM, Swinson RP (1999), Symptom structure in obsessive-compulsive disorder: a confirmatory factor-analytic study. Behav Res Ther 37(4):297-312.

          Tamaki J (1997), Tragic pattern of animal collectors. Los Angeles Times, pB1.

          Winsberg ME, Cassic KS, Koran LM (1999), Hoarding in obsessive-compulsive disorder: a report of 20 cases. J Clin Psychiatry 60(9):591-597.

          Worth D, Beck AM (1981), Multiple ownership of animals in New York City. Trans Stud Coll Physician Phila 3(4):280-300.

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          Jeannine Miesle

          Jeannine Miesle, M.A., M.Ed, Allied Member, Association of Avian Veterinarians is an important contributor to Beauty of Birds. Jeannine has done considerable writing, proofreading and editing for journals and newsletters over the years. She had taught English and music in the schools and presently is an organist at Bethany Church in West Chester, Ohio. She also administrates a Facebook group, The Science of Avian Health.

          Jeannine takes in rescued cockatiels and presently has twelve birds. When they come to her they remain as part of her flock.

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