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How cats in your house indicate Your mental health

Tim Boyer's picture
Cats and mental health

In a recent issue of the new, open-access online journal Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin, researchers addressed the question of when does the number of pets in a home cross the line between being an animal lover and an animal hoarder. More specifically, how does the mental profile of someone who owns 20 or more cats compare with a pet owner who only has a few cats and someone who is diagnosed as an animal hoarder.

In an article titled “Early Stage Animal Hoarders: Are These Owners of Large Numbers of Adequately Cared for Cats?” the authors explain that pet ownership spans a spectrum of owner behavior. On one end of the spectrum you have typical, healthy relationships with one or a few pets. On the other end of the spectrum, animal ownership is dysfunctional where a person has an excessive number of animals in the home to the point where both human and animal health is compromised. Such owners are diagnosed as animal hoarders.

To qualify as an animal hoarder, a pet owner typically meets the following 3 characterizations:

1. The accumulating of an unusually large number of companion animals
2. An inability to provide even minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, and veterinary care for these animals
3. Denial of the negative effects of the animal collection on the health and well-being of owners, their animals, and any other human occupants of the dwelling

People diagnosed as being animal hoarders follow psychological models that include obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), dementia, addiction, lack of impulse control, early deprivation of parental love and stability, and trauma surrounding early relationships.

While the act of animal hoarding and the mental state of people diagnosed with animal hoarding is a well-studied mental health phenomenon, little has been researched as to at what point does someone who really likes animals begin to descend the slippery slope of normal animal ownership and care to becoming pathological?

According to a news release from the University of Lincoln:

“Previous research in the area of animal hoarding has concentrated around extreme cases where authorities have often been alerted of the owners hoarding problem,” says Dr. Sarah Ellis, from the University of Lincoln’s School of Life Sciences, and a co-author on the study. “By this stage, hoarding behavior is well developed and therefore our ability to understand the development of hoarding behaviors from such research is limited. However, by virtue of the elusive and secretive nature of animal hoarders, identifying the early stages is often difficult so research is scarce. Our study used validated psychometric scales for traits previously reported to be associated with animal hoarding such as anxiety, depression and attachment in addition to a saving inventory used to measure hoarding behavior in object hoarding. We wanted to find out whether owners of large number of cats were more closely aligned to clinical animal hoarders or more typical cat owners on such measures.”

The authors of the study gathered their data from a sampling of pet owners in São Paulo, Brazil where ownership of large numbers of animals, particularly cats, is relatively common.

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What the researchers found was that pet owners not diagnosed as animal hoarders, but that do possess a relatively large number of cats in their home, match a profile of being closer to becoming an animal hoarder than being a normal pet owner. This pre-hoarder profile consisted of:

• Being significantly older

• More attached to their cats

• Displaying a relationship between hoarding behavior and anxiety that was not witnessed in owners of one or two cats.

“The results of this research suggest owners of large numbers of cats may be closer to the end of the pet keeping spectrum that represents animal hoarding than the end that represents appropriate and healthy pet keeping,” states Dr. Ellis. “Therefore, the studied population may represent the understudied group of early stage animal hoarders.”

However, Dr. Ellis also points out that external factors such as culture and societal animal control policies should not be overlooked as alternative explanations for pet keeping at levels that might be considered excessive.

Co-author Dr. Daniela Ramos states that in cases where somewhere does have a large number of cats in their home and does provide adequate care for their cats, that they may be at risk as they are likely at the early stages of animal hoarding. She adds that veterinarians can help by being aware of early hoarding behavior and thereby contribute to the prevention of hoarding.

“At this early stage it may be possible to help by education rather than intervention,” says Dr. Ramos.

Image Source: Courtesy of PhotoBucket

Reference: “Early Stage Animal Hoarders: Are These Owners of Large Numbers of Adequately Cared for Cats?” Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin (2013) Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 55-69; Ramos, D. et al.

University of Lincoln news release— “Can you love cats too much?”