WASHINGTON – People collect lots of things -- salt shakers, antiques, other inanimate objects -- but when they start to collect animals by the hundreds, so many they're unable to care for them, it crosses a line.
It's called animal hoarding, and aside from being an issue of animal cruelty, experts are calling for further examination of a disorder they say is widely misunderstood.
In the latest case in the Washington region, a 51-year-old Mount Airy woman was found guilty of 46 counts of animal neglect Tuesday after 119 living cats, and at least 100 more dead ones, were found in her squalid home.
Patricia K. Nicholson faces three years of probation, a psychological evaluation and about $10,000 in restitution when sentenced in November, according to the Frederick County State's Attorney's Office.
"You feel terrible for the animals, but we have to remember this is a tragedy all around. She lived in the same conditions that the animals did," said Kim Intino, director of animal sheltering at the Humane Society of the United States.
Intino sees hoarding as an illness more than a crime, but until the malady is more widely acknowledged, prosecution is often the only tool available to intervene.
Animal hoarding is a complex condition that affects more people than one might think, said Dr. Gary Patronek of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. Cases of such animal neglect, often gruesome, require responses from multiple state agencies, and people can fall through the cracks.
Originally, the condition was associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which can involve the hoarding of inanimate objects, but as Patronek and his colleagues at the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium studied it, they found animal hoarding to be a unique way of coping with childhood trauma and displaced pain.
He described people suffering from the disorder, mostly older women living alone, as psychologically disconnected and living in a type of "blind spot," where they can't see the problem with what they are doing.
Pain, loss and unresolved grief, particularly from childhood traumas such as abusive or neglectful parenting, are often underlying causes of animal hoarding, said Patronek. In some cases, the hoarders rely on animals as companions or sources of unconditional love. While this coping mechanism may help them in the short run, eventually it comes back to haunt them.
"We all know these awful childhood experiences are never completely shaken," Patronek said. "They can color our lives forever. Unfortunately this is how some of them eventually deal with it."
Patronek stressed that the hoarder profile is "highly speculative" because of the weakness of studies done on the issue. He isn't aware of any other group devoted to studying cases of animal hoarding.
In a 1999 study analyzing 54 cases from around the country, Patronek found that about two-thirds of hoarders are solitary women and nearly half are 60 or older. Still, he said, for every "cat lady" out there, there is an exception, and pet hoarders are a diverse bunch, as are the animals they collect, from cats and dogs to rabbits, birds and farm animals.
Patronek has seen hoarding cases in young people, married couples, even among health care workers and veterinarians -- people leading a "Jekyll and Hyde sort of life."
"The most fascinating thing to me is that the hoarder doesn't even acknowledge that things have gotten out of hand," said Intino, who has responded to many hoarding scenes. "They're standing in three inches of cat feces on their floor and tell you everything is fine."
Though hoarders can seem very rational, compassionate, even sympathetic when interviewed, their professed love of animals is a concept that plays well in the press and distracts from the real issue. Patronek says it doesn't make sense.
"It is a behavior that's about satisfying a human need," he said. "It's not about helping animals."
Acceptance of animal hoarding, particularly in the most widely used diagnostic manual, "doesn't happen out of the blue," said Petronek, and there needs to be a groundswell of support, which he hasn't seen.
The only mention of hoarding in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is as a symptom of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, said Charles Mansueto, director of the Behavior Therapy Center of Greater Washington.
Animal hoarding is a sub-type of hoarding that is very interesting in its own right and it will be important to sort out the differences, he said, adding that scientific study of hoarding is a relatively recent phenomenon. "There are more questions than answers at this point," and diagnoses are under constant review.
While some states have laws that require counseling in animal hoarding cases, they are hard to enforce, particularly because hoarders are "a very resistant population of people who don't believe they have a problem," and often can't afford treatment, Patronek said.
Experts recommend a task-force approach to hoarding cases involving police, social services, health officials and code enforcement working with animal control to respond to what Intino described as "small-scale disasters."
The Capital News Service contributed to this report.