Watching TV with remote

Over the past five or so years, the issue of pet hoarding has received an unprecedented degree of attention within the popular media. Never before has the public been so privy to the workings of this particular cultural oddity of ours. But here’s the thing: Veterinarians like me have always known their dirty little secret and never felt the need to shout it to the hills. Which perhaps explains why I harbor mixed feelings when it comes to the public display of hoarders among us.

A True Service or TV Profit Center?

On the one hand, these exposés are performing a public service. How else to raise the profile of a problem that’s undeniably more pervasive than most non-veterinary professionals know? On the other, I bristle at the strange and unpleasant details Americans are willing to digest courtesy of reality TV’s gawk culture.

After all, hoarders are real people with serious problems who are clearly being exploited ­­— with our edification on their bizarre brand of sickness as excuse for their exposure. What’s more, there’s no evidence that exposing the unsightly underbellies of these self-defined “rescuers” does anyone any good. That is, no one save those who profit from such programming.

No Clear Place to Draw the Line

I know that sounds harsh, but that’s probably because my profession offers me a perspective different from most of the TV-viewing public’s. As a veterinarian, not only do I come to know many “low-grade” hoarders, like many other veterinarians in my position I choose to work with them.

In general, this means we a) identify clients who might be suffering from the compulsion to hoard animals, b) do so before they've adopted behaviors so ingrained they reduce the individual’s ability to recover, and c) attempt interventions within the context of their families.

But that’s way easier said than done. For starters, we first have to answer the obvious: Who’s a hoarder?

It’s a tougher question to answer than you might think. I mean, I've been to a high-rise apartment on Miami Beach where 26(!) cats resided… but I could find little fault with their quality of life. Yet I've been to places where the living conditions of a mere six cats would break your heart. So how to know?

Out of Touch With Reality

Enter veterinary academia with its thoughtful definitions:

According to a 2008 paper, Understanding the Human Aspects of Animal Hoarding, “An animal hoarder is defined as someone who has accumulated a large number of animals and who: 1) fails to provide minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, and veterinary care; 2) fails to act on the deteriorating condition of the animals (including disease, starvation or death) and the environment (severe overcrowding, extremely unsanitary conditions); and often, 3) is unaware of the negative effects of the collection on their own health and well-being and on that of other family members.”

In fact, after examining 71 cases of animal hoarding, the paper concluded that while in 80% of reported cases animals were reportedly found dead or in poor condition, a full 60% of hoarders didn’t admit to having sick or dead animals in their dwelling. A disconnect with reality is clearly a common feature of this disorder.

Which raises one of life’s disturbing little ironies: How can these reality-challenged individuals be capable of consenting to be filmed while obviously in the throes of a mentally compromised state… for the sake of a reality-TV series?

Moreover, after watching a couple of heartrending episodes, it’s my view that television is doing no one any favors in its approach to animal hoarding. This tasteless brand of exposure of this once quietly held condition has only served to further stigmatize ­­those whose mental compromise manifests as such.

Opinions, Please

So let’s hear it: Am I alone in wishing reality TV would leave animal hoarders alone? Or is it helping more animals by shedding light on a “dirty little secret” others would rather see "swept under the rug"?