In late January, Stephanie Salvago stood outside a mobile home in Walker County, Alabama. She watched a scene with more than 100 dogs trapped in crowded enclosures or tied to short chains. Other dogs had escaped and were on the loose.
Salvago was part of the Greater Birmingham Humane Society, one of several animal welfare groups the county sheriff’s department asked to help with a disastrous rescue. Along with an animal control officer, Salvago decided to enter the house to assess the situation.
“We entered with nothing but our masks,” says Salvago. “We were probably there for about 45 seconds before we had to get out of the house. The fumes were unbearable.
Inside the house, 40 other dogs lived in their own filth. The rescue team opened the windows and began lifting those running towards them. While they waited for firefighters wearing hazmat suits to arrive, the team began numbering the rescued dogs and sending them to medical triage.
“It was probably as bad as you can imagine. It was a trailer full of almost 40 dogs, all of them using the toilet there,” says Salvago.
The two men who lived on the property had left the house and were living in their car. They were arrested on dozens of counts of animal cruelty.
As psychologists learn more about this motivates a person to hoard animals, scientists are also discovering the biological risks associated with animal hoarding. Toxicity can be fatal to animals and humans.
Understanding Animal Hoarding
Pet storage is classified as a hoarding disorder within the category of obsessive-compulsive and related disorders in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5 (DSM-5). Hoarding was first included in the DSM in 2013, and is thought to affect 2-3% of people in the United States.
Although official animal hoarding figures are not available, some behavioral scientists estimate up to 250,000 animals per year are made by animal hoarding in the United States.
The DSM-5 defines animal hoarding as “the accumulation of a large number of animals” and the failure to care for those animals with proper nutrition, sanitation, and medical treatment. Similar to people who hoard objects, people who hoard animals live in disorganized spaces and find it difficult to dispose of their collected items. However, people who hoard animals are more likely to live in poverty. Their homes are usually contaminated with animal feces and urine, as well as dead animals.
Animal hoarding is more complicated than object hoarding, especially when the treatment of animals meets local legal definitions for animal abuse. In an investigation public health officials, animal hoarding was described as more serious and more difficult to treat than object hoarding.
The extent of the animal hoarding varies, and social workers have developed a rating scale to distinguish levels of severity. Level 1 is a cluttered but functional house that has a few smells; level 5 is too dirty to be inhabited. From level 3, the footprint can extend from floor to ceiling. At level 4, a crime scene cleaner is needed to disinfect the house.
Even in the early stages of hoarding, a person can be exposed to deadly bacterial, fungal, parasitic, and viral diseases.
Inside an animal breeding house
A study in Health and social work reviewed 71 case reports of animal storage situations and classified 93% of residences as unfit for habitation due to extreme clutter and poor sanitation. Often, the landlord avoided bringing repair technicians into the residence to fix broken fixtures or plumbing fixtures. Case reports documented non-functional toilets or tubs, making it harder for the homeowner to clean up after the damage.
Clutter was so extreme in 80% of homes that social workers listed tripping over debris as a safety hazard, and 70% of homes listed fire hazards. The study also found extreme levels of ammonia from animal urine and faeces. Exposure to higher levels of ammonia can cause respiratory tract irritation and, in severe cases, pulmonary edema. Although the study lacked consistent data on ammonia limit values (TLVs) in case reports, one home had a highly toxic TLV of 152 parts per million (ppm). In comparison, most government agencies limit worker exposure to 25-35 ppm.
Animal waste in a storage situation can also expose a person to zoonotic diseases if they come into contact with animal feces, saliva, or insects that transmit diseases from pets to humans. Bacterial infections may include cat scratch disease, campylobacter, methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), and salmonella. Parasites such as cat tapeworm, cryptosporidiosis, giardia, hookworm and roundworm can also be transmitted from animals to humans.
Accumulate and injure animals
Not surprisingly, exposure to high levels of ammonia and infectious disease is also harmful to animals. A 2014 study in The veterinary journal reviewed the medical records of four large-scale cat hoarding situations, ranging from 387 to 697 cats. Most of the cats, 78%, suffered from mycoplasma or calicivirus, respiratory diseases. Eighty-eight percent had the viral infection feline enteric coronavirus, and the study authors concluded that rescue teams should be prepared for “mass treatment of infectious diseases”.
In the case of Alabama where Salvago helped, rescue teams arrived prepared. A medical tent has been set up outside to provide emergency care. In the days to come, the dogs were given deworming medication, proper nutrition and antibiotics when needed. Salvago says some of the dogs were injured because they were in the cramped house; others had battle wounds.
Less traumatized puppies and young dogs were taken by rescue groups, many out of state, and put up for adoption. However, Salvago says other dogs may need more training and socialization before they can be put up for adoption.
“A dog from a hoarding situation is not a typical dog,” she says.