July 27, 2010 at 9:34 AM ETWe’ve all heard the stories of people keeping outrageous numbers of animals. The Today Show ran a segment on the topic just last week, to coincide with the premiere of Animal Planet’s new show, “Confessions: Animal Hoarders”. But why is it so many of these tales seem to involve women and cats? There was the elderly woman in Phoenix with 104 cats, 10 of them dead and tucked into freezers; the woman in Greeley, Colo., whose house was condemned after authorities discovered she was harboring 83 felines. Women cat hoarders have been discovered in Citrus Heights, Calif., where a woman and her mother had 60 cats; Orange City, Fla., where rescue workers discovered an unconscious woman surrounded by 59 cats and Piney Flats, Tenn., where a 64-year-old woman was found living in a trailer with 31 cats. And that’s just so far this month. Is there something that makes women more prone to animal hoarding than men? “According to a 2002 study, 75 percent or more of animal hoarders are women who are middle age or older, usually unmarried and often socially isolated from family and friends,” says Dr. Christiana Bratiotis, project director of the Hoarding Research Project at Boston University’s School of Social Work. One reason women may hoard animals more often is because we’re biologically hardwired to take care of things. “Animal hoarders label themselves as rescuers,” she says. “And when you think about the connotation of that word, that seems to fit in with the gender role of women in this society. We’re rescuers and caregivers and care providers.” While it may be difficult to reconcile care-giving with horror stories of homes littered with animal feces and/or dead carcasses, Bratiotis says people who hoard animals really do believe they’re caring for the creatures. “Because of their mental illness, they have a very distorted belief that they are the person best suited to provide care for the animals,” she says. “They’re reluctant to place their animals in another person’s care, despite the fact they’re not well-fed or getting adequate veterinary care. They believe they’re doing well by the animals.” While it seems that cats somehow are the hoarders' pet of choice, that's simply because there's such a prevalance of felines says Bratiotis. After cats, people also hoard dogs, birds, horses, sheep, goats, rabbits, rodents and reptiles. Or occasionally, a mix of everything, as in a recent Philadelphia hoarding case where a woman was found with 53 cats, eight dogs, 21 chinchillas and eight birds. While the exact line where a loving cat owner starts to collect them and edge into hoarding country can be hard to pinpoint, Bratiotis points to the criteria experts use to define animal hoarding. If the cats are not well-fed, not getting adequate veterinary care, don’t have enough space and are regularly making too much of a mess for you to clean up, you’ve got too many, she says, whether that number is six, 16 or (gulp) 60.
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