We’ve all met her at some point: the lonely woman who lives in a filthy house that has been filled to the brim– and beyond– with cats. They are emaciated; their ribs jut out from their bodies. The house smells of ammonia and feces, and the owner of the cats lost count of her pets years ago. She is who we have all come to know as the Crazy Cat Lady.
While Crazy Cat Ladies have become something of a joke among cat lovers, and might be affectionately used to refer to women who simply have a lot of cats, there is nothing humorous about the lifestyle of a true cat hoarder. Pet hoarding is a disturbingly common mental illness that goes far beyond simply having a lot of cats: it is an actual disease that destroys homes and lives.

For unknown reasons, pet hoarders tend to be women– hence the fact that our Crazy Cat Lady is, stereotypically, a “lady”. This may relate to a desire to hoard pets based on maternal feelings, or a desire to care for weak or abandoned animals. Although it begins as an act of compassion and love, the Crazy Cat Lady’s desire for companionship quickly escalates into an out-of-control mental illness.

The elderly are especially likely to engage in the process of hoarding cats or other pets, probably because they find themselves socially isolated and crave the companionship offered by a house full of animals. Additionally, Crazy Cat Ladies’ obsessive hoarding may result from the onset of Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, which lend toward paranoid and delusional thinking.

Other forms of mental illness may also play a role in the onset of animal hoarding behaviors. Crazy Cat Ladies are likely to be afflicted with obsessive-compulsive disorder or paranoid schizophrenia, both of which may cause them to delusionally believe that all their pets are cared-for and healthy, despite obvious evidence to the contrary. Pet hoarders may or not be receiving treatment for their mental illness.

It’s not always easy to spot an actual Crazy Cat Lady, since many self-identified lunatics are simply eccentric, loving women who care passionately about their pets. For example, my friend Priscilla King, who operates a cat rescue program, may have several cats at any given point which might lend toward the illusion that she is a pet hoarder.

However, Priscilla’s cats are very well cared-for and she maintains a close eye on all of them: a clear indicator that she, like many cat lovers, is not a hoarder, but a responsible guardian. Responsible cat owners like her generally spay and neuter their pets and do not adopt more animals than they can realistically handle– whether an owner has two cats or twenty, the diagnosis of a true Crazy Cat Lady lies in their care, not their numbers.

Pet hoarders may have dozens or hundreds of animals, most or all of which show signs of neglect and abuse. They are likely to be flea-bitten and undersocialized, often having some of the same behaviors as cats who have never had any human contact. They are almost never spayed or neutered, and the owner makes little to no attempt to get them routine veterinary care.

While many, if not most, pet hoarders do fit the Crazy Cat Lady stereotype, the mental illness is by no means exclusive to women. Men may also hoard animals and be afflicted by similar types of illness. Cat hoarding can also occur in people of any age, ethnicity, or background, so one should not dismiss the possibility that someone is a clinical pet hoarder simply because they do not fit the profile.

If you suspect that a neighbor, friend, or relative is a pet hoarder, contact your local animal control center or humane society as soon as possible. Pet hoarders not only harm their pets through neglect and abuse, but also desperately need access to proper health care to resolve their psychiatric illnesses. Your local law enforcement agency can work to get treatment for a pet hoarder as well as the animals in her care.