By Katie McHenry
In August, a hoarding situation in southwest Virginia prompted an animal control investigation, and nearby Ceres-based Lost Fantasy Rescue stepped in to rescue several dogs. The dogs were living in cages stacked one upon the other in a camper trailer. None of the dogs were housebroken, nor had most been socialized. Most were fearful of people, and one had a neurological disorder.
Due to limited resources, Lost Fantasy contacted SPCA NOVA for assistance. We agreed to take in two of the dogs, Poppy and Dax. They were taken to Ragged Mountain Dogs, where we board most of our dogs. Lisa Reid, who owns the rescue and boarding facility, agreed to take another two dogs, Daisy and Lilly. None of these dogs had ever had any vetting so they received their first-ever exams, vaccinations, heartworm testing, and, of course, spaying/neutering. Thankfully, all four turned out to be healthy.
While Poppy and Dax seemed to have had some degree of socialization, it was clear that they had never received house training or learned basic commands. They were also fearful of walking on certain surfaces because they had spent most of their lives in cages. While at Ragged Mountain Dogs, they were put on a regular schedule for feeding, walks, and play time. Lisa worked to teach them basic commands and get them more comfortable with people.
Poppy did so well that she has already been adopted, and, as of this writing, Dax’s adoption is pending. Poppy and Dax’s adoptive families understand that they’re basically adopting adult puppies who need to learn everything from scratch.
What Is Hoarding?
According to the ASPCA, a quarter of a million animals are victims of hoarding every year, which is an issue that straddles animal welfare, mental health, and public safety. Best Friends Animal Society (BFAS) classifies hoarding as “when individuals accumulate animals in numbers that exceed their ability to provide for the animals’ basic needs, resulting in a situation that causes harm to the animals,” noting that hoarding exists on a spectrum. In most cases, hoarding is the result of mental illness, when the hoarder doesn’t recognize the suffering they are inflicting on the animals in their care.
In many cases, dozens or even hundreds of animals are confined to a small space, sometimes in cages but often roaming freely. There can be animal waste on the floor, sometimes so much that it produces enough ammonia to harm the animals’ eyes and lungs. Animals might have to compete for food. Many have never been properly socialized. Their physical health is often neglected, and it’s not unusual for animal control officers to find multiple dead animals.
Most dogs rescued from hoarding situations have both physical and mental/emotional health issues. Physical issues can include hair and skin issues, parasites, eye and ear infections, dental disease, injuries and malnutrition. Mental health issues can include fear (to humans, other dogs, sudden movements, loud noises), aversion to human touch, attention-seeking behaviors and compulsions.
In many cases, dogs rescued from hoarding situations routinely used an entire home as their bathroom, which means that training them to use the bathroom only outdoors and at certain times can be a challenge. They might also exhibit repetitive or compulsive behaviors, such as licking, chewing, pacing, or spinning in circles in order to cope with boredom or anxiety. Training them can be more difficult, as their fear clouds their cognitive abilities, including concentration.
According to a BFAS study, the most important tool in rehabilitating dogs rescued from hoarders is patience. A lifetime, often years, of emotional trauma won’t disappear overnight. Other tools include introducing them to a friendly, confident dog to show them the ropes; showing them love and affection; sending them to obedience classes; and having a consistent routine. But every dog will learn to trust and feel safe in their own time.
BFAS worked with the University of Pennsylvania to produce a manual on this topic. You can read it here.