Help animal hoarders by referring them for mental health assessments: IMH consultant

Twelve kittens and seven adult cats have died from a virus after being rescued from a cat hoarder’s home in Chua Chu Kang. PHOTO: CAT WELFARE SOCIETY
Twelve kittens and seven adult cats have died from a virus after being rescued from a cat hoarder’s home in Chua Chu Kang. PHOTO: CAT WELFARE SOCIETY

SINGAPORE - Family and friends can help animal hoarders by referring them for assessments to see if they have underlying mental illnesses, a consultant for the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) told The Straits Times on Friday (July 14).

Dr Kelvin Ng, a consultant with IMH's Department of Community Psychiatry, was responding to two recent cat hoarding cases. In one Sengkang flat, 94 cats were found while 19 felines died as a result of a virus at a flat in Chua Chu Kang.

"Family members or friends can help by referring the hoarder for appropriate assessment to see if they have any underlying mental illness that causes the person to hoard, and sometimes, management of the underlying mental illness can improve the hoarding behaviour," Dr Ng said.

He pointed out two main groups of people who may hoard: Those with mental illnesses that can include schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder and depression, as well as those who do not have mental illness but have a hoarding disorder.

"If there is no underlying mental illness, and the person is suffering from hoarding disorder, then family members should cooperate with the various agencies that deal with hoarding, such as the Housing Board and Town Council to compel the hoarder to declutter the hoard, and give emotional support during the decluttering process to the hoarder," he said.

The Cat Welfare Society (CWS) had previously told The Straits Times that it was working together with IMH to get the cat hoarder in the Chua Chu Kang case psychologically assessed.

Dr Ng cited a 2010 Singapore Mental Health Study, which surveyed 6,616 Singapore residents and found that the weighted prevalence of lifetime and 12-month hoarding behaviour was found to be 2 per cent and 0.8 per cent respectively.

 
 

Even so, Dr Ng said local understanding of hoarding is "still in its infancy stage" as "there has been little local research on hoarding".

"We do not have much information regarding animal hoarding," he said. "Some characteristics that have been reported in the few cases of animal hoarders are that they are animal lovers, and that they feel that they are actually providing adequate care for the animals that they are keeping, even though they are not actually providing even minimally sufficient care for the animals."

Hoarding behaviour tends to begin early, and gets worse with age, often culminating in circumstances that can be hazardous.

"The hallmark problem of hoarding is not the accumulation of items, but rather the difficulty of discarding the items," said Dr Ng. "If family members realise that this person has this problem of not wanting to throw things away, they need to watch to see if this person will develop a hoarding disorder."

Treatment for mental illnesses can in some cases help improve hoarding behaviour, said Dr Ng. For example, treating those with schizophrenia may help stop the hallucinations of commands telling them to hoard items.

Hoarding is classified as a disorder when the following criteria are fulfilled:

- A person has persistent difficulty discarding possessions, regardless of their actual value;

- The difficulty is due to distress associated with discarding the items;

- This results in accumulation that congests and clutter the living areas and subsequently compromises their intended use;

- This causes significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning.

Dr Ng pointed out the following signs and symptoms that can help to diagnose or define animal hoarding:

- Accumulation of numerous animals, which has overwhelmed that person's ability to provide even minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, and veterinary care;

- Failure to acknowledge the deteriorating condition of the animals (including disease, starvation and even death), and the household environment (overcrowding, unsanitary conditions etc);

- Failure to recognise the negative effect of the collection on his own health and well-being, and on that of the other household members.