What's the deal with "cat ladies"?

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Nov. 8 2009 7:07 AM

What's the Deal With "Cat Ladies"?

Are there "cat gentlemen," too?

Voters in Dudley, Mass., passed a ballot measure on Tuesday making it illegal to own more than three catswithout a special license. The new law came about after residents complained that one woman's 15 cats were running amok in neighbors' yards. In an Explainer column first published in 2005 and reprinted below, Daniel Engber gets to the bottom of the "cat lady" phenomenon.

A Virginia judge declared on Monday that 82-year-old Ruth Knueven is unfit to own pets, after animal-control officers seized her 488 cats. Local law enforcement and animal-control officials say they found 120 cats in her house in 2001 and that they've discovered several other cat hoarders in the area over the past year. What's the deal with "cat ladies"?

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Not all animal hoarders are cat ladies, but most are. The typical person who gets caught with more pets than she can handle is a woman over the age of 60 who lives alone. Experts say there are a handful of animal-hoarding cases per 100,000 Americans each year, which translates to a few thousand incidents annually. The problem seems to be a global one: The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium receives e-mails about animal hoarders in the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and Latin America.

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Dooley Worth and Alan M. Beck conducted what may have been the first survey on the issue in New York City in 1981. They found that two-thirds of the obsessive collectors were women and that 70 percent were single. Cats and dogs were the most commonly stockpiled pets, and women were proportionally more likely than men to acquire cats. (Subsequent research has found that people do occasionally hoard farm animals, rabbits, horses, and birds, but not as often as cats and dogs.) Worth and Beck found that animal hoarders tended to be somewhat isolated, but this seemed to be the result—and not the cause—of their large pet collections.

A study conducted in 1999 found similar trends. About half of the hoarders were elderly, which may reflect the fact that older people have more years to accrue animals and less ability to care for them. In most cases, animal waste dirtied the home; the hoarder's bed was sometimes found to be covered with feces or urine.

Researchers say that most obsessive animal collectors deny that they have a problem. Many claim to have a special ability to communicate with their animals and insist that all their pets are well-loved and in good health. (In fact, the animals are often dying around them; animal control officers found more than 200 dead cats in two homes owned by the Knueven family.) Some psychiatrists say these beliefs, along with a paranoid fear of government intervention, may constitute a delusional disorder.

Animal hoarding has also been viewed as an addiction, like compulsive gambling or alcoholism, or as a form of dementia. Though hoarders are usually quite old, many recall a history of neglect or abuse by their parents. Obsessive-compulsive disorder provides another psychiatric model; about a quarter of OCD patients exhibit object-hoarding behavior. No one knows why women are more susceptible than men. One member of the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium points out that women are also more likely to become veterinarians and less likely to perform acts of animal cruelty.

It's not clear if and how animal hoarders could be treated, but the fines and jail sentences doled out by courts don't seem to work. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a convicted hoarder will almost always collect again.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Gary Patronek of Tufts University.

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