THE PROBLEM OF CAT COLLECTORS
A cat collector (also known as a cat hoarder) is a person who has more cats than they can cope with, but keeps taking in more cats. Many start off with good intentions - to rescue and rehome cats - but can't bear to part with any of their cats and they can't turn cats away. Some scour the streets looking for 'strays' (or have friends who do this for them) and this has resulted in legal cases of theft where the collector takes in an owned cat and refuses to relinquish it.
It is necessary to differentiate between a person who has a large feline "family" but whose cats are disease free, neutered, socialised and each given individual attention. Cats do not like to live crowded in with too many other cats and a non-collector understands this and does not take on more cats than they - or their existing cats - can cope with. A non-collector is scrupulously hygienic with food and litter trays and rarely if ever keeps cats caged except for medical reasons. I've visited across small apartments where there are 10 indoor cats (all neutered), but which doesn't smell of cat and where the cats interact with each other happily. The owner knows each by name, knows their medical histories and can immediately spot signs of illness. Her cats receive prompt medical treatment. It's a little crowded in there at playtime, but the cats are healthy and sociable. She's not a collector. She knows when to stop adopting cats and when she fosters cats, she always rehomes them.
Throughout this article, I've used the term 'she'. Most cat collectors are female. There are male collectors and there are couples and families who are collectors. The stereotypical image of a cat person being a dotty old woman with a house full of mangy cats is insulting to a cat owner but is all-too-often an accurate picture of a cat collector.
What Is A Cat Collector?
A cat collector is a person who accumulates an excessive number of cats without the space, resources or ability to care for them properly. She is usually opposed to surrendering their animals voluntarily to anyone; she refuses to surrender them to humane societies because some of the animals will be euthanized. She contributes to the likelihood of their destruction by failing to provide proper health care and by failing to neuter or socialize them. In effect she lives in the middle of an indoor feral colony.In February 2002 a couple in Gothenburg, Sweden, resorted to living in their cellar while their cats took over the rest of the house. They lived in the basement, with no electricity or running water, for several months to escape the animals. Neighbours alerted health inspectors after seeing dead cats in the house. Health inspectors said they had never seen anything like it - inside the house were 3 dead cats and 25 living cats in such poor condition that they had to be destroyed. 15 more cats were caught in the garden and also destroyed. Inside the two-storey residence there were piles of cat faeces. The house reeked of urine which had soaked into the walls, floors and furnishings. Health Inspectors doubted it would be possible to remove the smell - the house would most likely have to be pulled down. The couple were forbidden from getting new pets and faced charges of cruelty to animals, which could lead to a year in jail. The great tragedy of animal hoarding is that animals suffer and die at the hands of people who believe they are saving the animals.
A typical collector takes animals in, but does not adopt any out. She says she rehomes them, but cannot bear to part with a single one. She believes that nobody could ever care for them as well as they can, in spite of the evidence of sick cats around her. This unwillingness to part with a cat may extend to when cats are sick, dying or dead. The collector refuses to visit a vet because of difficult questions which could result in all her animals being seized. The cats aren't vaccinated. Diseases spread through the overcrowded home and cats may become chronically ill or die. Even then, the collector may be unable to part with the cat and keeps the corpse in the freezer. This not any kind of rational decision, it is because the collector simply cannot part with any of their collection even after its death.
Many collectors like to think of themselves as unofficial adoption shelters. They claim that take in strays in order to find them new homes. They claim they don't take the cats to traditional shelters because of the euthanasia rate. Word gets around and people take cats to the collector because they know the cats won't be put down - however ill or injured they may get. I work at a no-kill shelter and we've taken in confiscated collector's cats. The collector told the newspaper that we would kill all his cats, despite our no-kill status (this caused problems later on because people remembered his story). Collectors are unable to come to terms with the dilemma of too many animals, too few homes.
A collector's cats usually suffer from neglect rather than violent abuse. They may get fed the wrong things, they may be infested with parasites or be blind due to untreated disease. The lack of violent abuse (kicking, beating etc) makes it hard for the public to understand that collectors are committing cruelty. Collectors cultivate an image of being a cat rescuer. Animal welfare law defines cruelty as acts, omissions or neglect, which cause or permit unjustifiable physical pain, suffering or death. This includes failure to seek veterinary attention and failure to provide adequate food or water. It also covers the housing conditions e.g. the keeping of cats in small, filthy stacked cages or rabbit hutches.
Animal collecting should be considered a mental disorder or personality disorder like addiction or obsessive-compulsive behaviour. Collectors are not severely mentally ill or severely clinically depressed as they are competent in other areas of their life. Collectors are not cat owners who have experienced a sudden financial or personal shock - they don't cut back on their activities. Most are intelligent, and often competent in most areas of their lives, but need therapy for their addiction or compulsion. Most will never be fully cured and should remain under supervision. Courts rarely if ever recognize this; they enforce the cruelty laws, ban the collector from keeping cats (like banning a drug addict from taking drugs) and issue a fine.
Their behaviour is comparable to that of drug addicts or alcoholics: self-neglect; lack of awareness of their physical living conditions; obsessively repetitious conduct; self-deception; alibis for or denial of problem behaviour; withdrawal from social interactions; avoidance of other people, except for "enablers" who support or encourage the addiction. A pathological drive, rather than n overpowering love of cats is suggested by the worst collectors' failure to acknowledge the blatant signs of neglect and suffering they inflict on the animals they collect.
A Typical Collector Profile
The general public is only vaguely familiar with the problem of cat collectors, and then only in terms of nuisance and smell and sometimes cat theft (such my area's "Mad Sal" who has "rescued" any number of neighbour's cats). Almost every town has someone who harbours and encourages hordes of stray cats, but who provides a minimal standard of cat care. Such people are perceived by the public as eccentric, but well-meaning and harmless. They may be unaware of the level of neglect, disease and irrational behaviour behind closed doors. Very occasionally, a previously respected breeder's establishment and behaviour may deteriorate to the point of them being classed as a collector (this causes all breeders to be viewed with suspicion).
In one case, a collector in our shelter's catchment area was raided three times after amassing a large number of cats. Most were unneutered and reproducing, many were FIV/FeLV positive and had to be euthanized. The time and money spent by the SPCA could have been used for spay/neuter elsewhere. The cats also occupied several pens at the no-kill shelter. The collector left the area "through ill health" but is apparently collecting cats at his new home.
Another couple amassed more than 100 cats in their home; all were sick and/or starving. Several large dustbins were filled with excrement and debris. The house was condemned and stripped out by the health department due to the urine and diarrhoea which had seeped into floors, ceilings below, and walls. The carpets, drapes and furnishing were rotting from being urine-soaked. The couple owned a second house which was initially been well-furnished. It contained 150 cats sharing only 2 or 3 litter trays. The cats had defecated and urinated on every available surface, in some places there were piles of dried excrement several inches deep. Soft furnishings were urine-soaked and rotting. Even the wooden floors were rotting. To compound the problem, the couple had soaked the floors with bleach solution, adding to the wet rot problem. The house was condemned and the cats removed (all were feral and most were diseased), but the couple continued to reside there and continued to collect cats.
The collector's house is often run down and there is a strong odour coming from it, a mix of faeces, rotten food, sour milk, ammonia and tom cat pee. The neighbours describe the occupant as a crazy old person or cat-loving recluse. On the few occasions they see the occupant she is carrying cans of cheap cat food or dog food (many use dog food which is cheaper but nutritionally inadequate for cats). She stinks. Neighbours have put up tall fences to block out the sight and smell from her home and to keep out the rats. The collector's garden is untended and may be strewn with junk, including rotting furniture and urine-soaked carpets thrown out of the house. There is a narrow path through the garden, used by the occupant and the postman and there is evidence of rats attracted to stale cat food and garbage.
There may be cats outdoors; all thin and sickly, with respiratory and eye infections. They are feral, or nearly so, and depend on the cat collector for food. Outside the door are trays filled with stale or maggoty cat food, sour milk and there are piles of empty food cans. The cats go in and out the house through a permanently open kitchen window, or a window with a broken pane. The typical collector scenario involves numerous unneutered cats with various contagious and infectious diseases and infected wounds. None of their illnesses or injuries are treated by a vet. The collector may keep some favourite cats in crates, rabbit hutches and bird cages, but allow the others to mix freely and breed. There may be 2 or 3 overflowing litter trays or the collector might give up and let the cats mess in the kitchen sink or bathtub, or simply on the floor and furnishings.
Cats kept under these conditions become ill and depressed. They neglect themselves and abandon their normally fastidious habits. Sometimes the collector forgets to provide food and water anyway, or allows the food to become stale. Collectors may feed their cats dog food which is cheaper, but leads to malnutrition in cats. Depressed cats may stop drinking and eating. Their deaths are seen as natural since the collector doesn't believe in euthanasia. They are quickly replaced. A later thorough inspection by the public health dept reveals cat bodies in the deep freeze. When the cats are rounded up by humane societies and removed, the collector becomes hysterical because some of the cats will be put down.
So far, the collector has committed several offences related to animal welfare (acts and omissions which constitute cruelty and neglect) as well as public health offences. In addition she may be breaking the terms of an order limiting her to only four cats (the terms may vary). Sadly, most of the cats will prove to ill or wild to rehome and will be destroyed. The courts will have to assess the collector's mental state, but they rarely treat cat collectors as they would treat other addicts so society, the Public Health Dept and Animal Societies go on clearing up the mess after them but never tackling the root cause of mental illness.
Collectors May Be Crazy, But They're Not Stupid
Despite the very generalized profile above, animal collectors, and their suffering collection, can go completely unnoticed for long periods. Collectors may become reclusive and preoccupied with collecting cats. Even if they are not reclusive, they may ignore their own personal hygiene and be shunned by friends and relatives due to their overpowering. It's hard to stay clean and sweet-smelling when you live in a midden and cats defecate in the bathtub.
Experts have said "these people are crazy, but they're not stupid". Collectors manipulate the sympathies of the community and the media, getting themselves portrayed as good samaritans and animal lovers who rescue and preserve animals from certain death. Those who start off as rescuers soon get out of control and lose sight of their original aims. It's usually obvious from the condition of their animals that things are out of control. Most run out of money very quickly, so animals are seldom neutered, vaccinated or treated for illness, adding to the problems of health and population control. Those who have enough money may try to provide for the physical needs of the animals, but may refuse to recognise the physical and psychological effects of overcrowding their cats.
The rational "rescuer" understands that there are limitations to money and space and, heartbreaking as it may be, knows when to say "enough." The collector is incapable of making those decisions. The rescuer controls her habit, the collector is controlled by her habit.
Some collectors just cannot understand why humane societies are upset that 150 cats (and increasing) must spend their entire lives in an area of 1100 square foot. Or why humane societies throw a hissy fit at seeing cats in piled up bird cages and rabbit hutches both indoors and outdoors; or why 10 litter trays (changed weekly) between 100 cats is not sufficient. They deny that the cats are stressed in spite of the cats spraying. They cite the fact that the cats don't ever fight - in fact the cats may be too ill or depressed to fight. They deny there are health dangers in spite of dying kittens underfoot. In an overcrowded situation a simple virus can turn into a killer epidemic, especially as new cats are coming in all the time and bringing along their own infections. Cats might be dying and the collector will still claim no-one else is fit to care for them. Dying cats and corpses might go unnoticed for days. Kittens are born and get killed and eaten by their mothers or by other cats. The collector has created a living hell for the cats. Indicative of a mental disorder is the fact that such a person can neither see nor face the truth.
Collectors Love Their Collections Rather Than Individual Cats
Good intentions and a love of cats may be the initial motivation for those who become collectors. Once started, they just can't stop themselves. It's an obsession. At first they can cope with the swelling numbers, but soon collecting becomes an end in itself, critical mass is achieved and the level of care per animals plummets. They lose all sense of proportion.
Collectors may never indicate of demonstrate any love for their cats beyond what is needed to keep other people on their side. They may talk of wanting to own a particular breed of cat, much the same way as stamp collectors want to fill in a gap in their collection. The mentality is that of a Victorian menagerie owner who wants "one of everything" in his collection. Some cat collectors are scaled down menagerie owners, complete with filthy cages. They may not show any grief at losing a cat since in their peculiar mindset, the collection is more important than the individual. They won't give up any cats until forced to do so partly because it breaks up the collection. Some collectors don't even know how many cats they have or even if the loose cat in the yard is "one of theirs".
Collectors think they love their animals yet most of those whose premises have been investigated by humane societies and public health authorities showed no attachment to individual cats, only to the idea of possessing that cat. Many showed little of no concept of suffering or pain in those animals. Perhaps that is what defines who is a collector and who simply has a large feline family - the collector thinks she loves her cats but is actually in love with the concept of owning that cat.
Most cat collectors have "enablers" who help them. The enablers might think of themselves as rescue helpers. They might go out and acquire cats for the collection or might help with care or contributions of food or money. These enablers may realise that what the collector is doing is terribly wrong, but they continue to help "for the sake of the cats." Enablers might describe the collector as a wonderful caring person who is dedicated to their cats and then describe the horrors of the collector's premises as if that was the best way in the world for cats to live. They may show the same unreasoning devotion to the collector as cult followers have to a suicide-cult leader.
Mopping Up The Mess
Classic cat collectors collect other things as well. Their homes may be so full of junk that they can't easily move around. The junk may be covered in cat faeces or urine. Some have stacks of bin bags and rotting carpets and there may be food left to rot. They seem immune to these conditions in the same way that a substance addict may be immune to his physical surroundings. As a result it's often the Public Health Department who are called in to act following complaints of smells and rats or mice. The Public Health Officer finds a cat collection and calls the SPCA to investigate cruelty and neglect or simply to remove the cats. Sometimes the collector's activities come to light because she steals an owned cat and the rightful owner takes legal action to recover her pet.
It is usually only when the collector's habits or their collection become offensive to others that people alert authorities to what is going on. A few people keep watch on known collectors but it may be hard to persuade the SPCA to investigate without any initial evidence of abuse. Public Health officials, police or the SPCA may receive complaints about overwhelming odours and noise from a particular property (with cats, noise is uncommon but odour from spraying toms is distinctive). Smells and sounds are more easily detected in towns and streets; collectors in rural areas are harder to detect and many cats will suffer neglect undetected at the hands of a collector.
By the time the authorities take any action, usually after persistent complaints from neighbours, many of the cats are beyond help. They have to be euthanized because of chronic illness, poor socialisation (literally indoor ferals) or chronic neglect. In some cases many could be saved if there were finances and shelter spaces available. The overpopulation situation is such that shelters are already full to overflowing and simply cannot afford to take in, medicate and neuter so many cats at once. The medical treatment alone can run into hundreds of pounds and there is no guarantee that the cat doesn’t have an underlying condition such as FIP. Even if the cat is healthy or can be restored to health, it may be traumatized, aggressive, neurotic or effectively feral having never interacted with humans. A British TV program showed animal welfare officers removing 20+ cats from a single upstairs flat (small apartment); these were euthanized immediately because they were ferals. Of the kittens, some lost eyes due to untreated conjunctivitis and some were euthanized having lost both eyes to the infection. The collector had effectively ended up with an indoor colony of wildcats which were diseased and breeding.
The collector is evicted or simply has the cats confiscated, but despite legal injunctions that they must not keep cats or must not own more than 3 cats at one time, they simply start collecting cats again. They have an obsessive-compulsive disorder or addiction which requires therapy if they are to stop collecting. Otherwise the problem will continue to repeat over and over, however many times animals are confiscated from the premises. The problem is that the authorities treat the collectors like naughty children or idiots "I see you've got some cats again, now what did we tell you about keeping too many cats?" But the collector isn't naughty or an idiot, she has a mental/personality disorder or addiction and exhibits cunning in dealing with, and manipulating, the authorities.
The SPCA Gets Vilified
When an SPCA is called into a collector situation, they are told, "I wanted to save their lives," or "I was afraid that if I took them to the shelter, they would be killed." It is hard for the animal welfare worker to reconcile these statements with reality when standing ankle deep in excrement and rotting food, surrounded by sickly, dying and sometimes dead cats. The collector cannot understand that the quality of life they are inflicting on their cats is nothing more than a protracted death through neglect, illness, injury, poor nutrition and almost every other factor they claim to be saving the cats from.
The collector gives the same line to journalists who glorify the collector's attempts to save the cats. The tales of the devoted cat carer bear little or no relation to the gruesome conditions the collectors' cats must endure. Worse, such stories encourage collectors and can perpetuate the cycle of high density neglect.
The villain of the stories is the SPCA who confiscates the cats and has them all destroyed. No matter that the cats were diseased beyond help, it is the SPCA who have condemned them, not the collector. It can do untold damage to a shelter's reputation. I know. I've been there when a mad Chinchilla Persian owner (with 30+ inbred unneutered cats all traceable to a single Chinchilla Persian queen) ran this line to the press. In that case the cats were healthy and friendly, but the population was rising fast he was unemployed. He was allowed to keep several after they were neutered. Every single cat from the household was found a home, many via a Persian rescue as Chinchilla Persians minus pedigree papers. But for weeks we had to weather the accusations of a disbelieving public who had read the newspaper story (but not the two line correction printed the following week).
The there are the cats. Poor socialised, diseased, inbred, possibly neurotic and mostly unneutered. Many will be beyond help, possibly already dying, and must be euthanized. The collector crows "I told you they'll be put to sleep" blissfully ignorant that the cats must be euthanized because of the collectors actions or inaction. Some will recover with extensive and expensive medical treatment. Some have behavioural symptoms which mean they cannot be homed. Some are effectively feral but have lived indoors so cannot be released at a feral-friendly site. All those which can be saved must be neutered. Meanwhile, an equal number of friendly, healthy and neutered pet cats are euthanized because the shelter is full up with the fallout from the collector's habits.
However much time and effort the shelters put into restoring the cats to health and finding them homes, the newspapers only seem interested in running the tale of the victimized collector whose cats were seized and killed by the big bad authorities. They'll print a photo of the collector cuddling a healthy cat obtained from goodness knows where and destined for a life of neglect and disease in the collector's foetid home. Donations to the shelter drop off because they "just kill cats". Instead of taking their cats to a shelter, owners take them to the collector because they know she won't have them killed. She may well kill them with neglect, but it won't be on purpose.
What do you do with a five year old cat which is too feral to handle but has never been outdoors in its life? It was born in a collector household and never been handled by humans. It cannot be neutered and released e.g. onto a farm as it has never been outdoors. There is no place in the world for such a cat. Nobody wants an indoor feral. He can be kept in a pen at a no-kill shelter or in an indoor cage by a responsible owner in the hope that he will come round eventually; but such a life is not much less cruel than being in the collector's household.
The Cost To The Community
Collectors cost communities, taxpayers and animal welfare organisations a great deal in terms of legal fees and other costs such as cleaning up a collector's home and rehousing them and their cats. The collectors themselves don't get therapy and the problem repeats itself.
In the US, laws are being introduced to limit the number of cats which may be owned. Such laws are already in force in parts of Australia in an attempt to reduce the cat population. There is a risk that the laws will punish the responsible cat owners and breeders, rescuers, and humane organizations. In addition, the laws limit the number of good homes available for those organizations to place cats in because the cat would be "one over the limit" for the household. What is needed is a common sense approach, perhaps multi-cat household could apply for licences in order to keep more than the usual maximum quota of cats.
Laws don't stop collectors because cat collectors are like drug addicts - making their activity illegal won't stop them because they are not able to comply. The only solution is counselling for their mental/personality problem followed by mandatory supervision. Even if the legislators acknowledged this, they still find it cheaper to pass laws and destroy "extra" cats; treating the symptom not the cause.
What is certain though is that without treatment collectors will never stop collecting, their cats will go on suffering and everyone else will keep on mopping up the mess.
Inside the Mind of a Collector
They say "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions". What then are the good intentions which turn a person into a cat (or any other animal) collector? Imagine this:
You know that every town contains cat-hating sadists. These days, cruelty to animals is almost acceptable - it's on the web, on TV, in films (the film "Cats and Dogs" depicted violence against cats as being acceptable) and the police and authorities either don't care enough to do anything or the perpetrators get off lightly, just like that sick English woman who microwaved her cat to death because a flea bit her. There are psychopaths who go out looking for cats to kidnap, torture and kill. Some of them adopt kitties from "free to good home" notices.
You could call an animal shelter - but the shelters are always full and there is a long waiting list. Maybe in your locality, shelter kitties are destroyed if they don't get adopted in 30 days (sometimes as little as 14 days, or even 3 days). Or worse, the shelter is subject to pound seizure whereby unadopted cats are legally seized by laboratories and vivisected to death. So what can you do? You start to rescue the cats. You want to be sensible about it, so you make a list of rules so you don't get over-loaded. Here are some of them.
Take in the healthy cats only or the others will get sick.
Get all cats screened for FIV and FeLV.
Get them all neutered within days of arriving.
Routine flea and worm treatment
One litter tray for every 2 cats!
Contact SPCA about the sick cats you catch, all you can do is give them a way out of suffering.
FIND GOOD HOMES FOR THE FRIENDLY ONES
You start to feed the local strays and build up their trust. Some are tame, some were abandoned so long ago that they are now wild. When you do catch them they fight you. How are they to realise that you are the only chance they've got? Soon you are covered in scratches even though you use welder's gauntlets and a towel to catch those poor scared cats.
Once indoors, the cats you do catch are safe from psychopaths and from the council's regular round-ups and slaughter of stray animals. They live with your family of rescued cats. There is no 30 day limit on their life. At first the wild ones freak out. They aren't used to being inside with so many cats. They don't remember about feeling secure. Eventually they calm down and they just sit around quietly. Pretty soon, cats start to turn up at your house as if word has gotten around, and other people start bringing your cats because they've heard you say how the shelters are full and how the council rounds-up the strays for destruction when they think there are too many of them.
You ought to find homes for some of the cats, but everyone knows that the cat-hating sadists masquerade as would-be adopters. And even if you find genuine families to take cats, how can you be sure they will care for them as well as you can? It isn't fair to rehome the cats and unsettle them. Now they are with you they are safe and secure, why upset them any more?
A few weeks later, you notice there are kittens in the house. Then you realise that not all of the cats are neutered. That explains why some of the cats are spraying so much - they aren't just nervous, they are tomcats doing what tomcats do. And the females are doing what females do - having babies.
So what about that list? Oopsie - you missed an unspayed female and a tomcat. Still, it's only one litter (except it isn't, you long ago ran out of money for neutering). And you ran out of money for FIV/FeLV screening so you only took the sick-looking cats to the vet - if you noticed one in the furry throng. And the litter trays - well one between two was optimistic - they'll have to do one between five and some of them are bound to miss once in a while. Err, when did you last clean out all the trays? They fill up so quickly these days. Still, you can do them all tomorrow.
Then when you do get around to cleaning out the litter trays, you find a thin cat curled up dead in a corner. Probably just old age, after all you are giving them plenty of food even if you can't afford the best brands any more. At least you're sure you fed them this morning, or was it yesterday morning? With so many plates piled up it's hard to be sure. You really should catch up with washing those dishes - maggots hatch so fast in the summer.
And thinking of maggots, what to do about the dead cat? There's no room in the yard (it is stacked with crates and hutches of cats - you couldn't bear to have the FIV/FeLV cats destroyed) so you'll have to store the body until you can take it to a crematorium. Even better, store several as mass cremations are cheaper. Soon your freezer is full of cats and you're scared to go to the crematorium in case they ask where you got so many dead cats.
With so many cats, you can't keep up with housework. You haven't done the laundry since washing the cat blankets made the machine break (you're sure it blocked the filter, but you never got around to getting it fixed). You really ought to clear the floor, but these days you hardly know where to start. You don't even realise how bad the smell is - you've gotten used to it.
Soon you are living in one room of the house. The cats need the rest of the room. You try to get to every room of cats and to the ones in the back yard crates, but sometimes you don't manage it. Did you remember to feed the ones in the conservatory? Never mind, they can cope till tomorrow. You'll feed them and clean the litter trays out tomorrow. Except you can no longer keep up with cleaning out the litter trays or feeding the cats. When did you last put water in the crates in the yard? You hardly dare look. At least they are not being tortured by psychopaths.
Eventually the neighbours complain so much that local authorities come to take all the cats you've rescued - and their kittens. The council tell you that your house is being condemned due to structural damage and the smell. You never noticed the smell. You are given therapy because the SPCA find your freezer is full of cats. There are crates of cats in the yard. You can't believe it when they say the cats were starved to death. Even worse, you are told that so many of the cats are infected with FeLV or FIV, that every single cat and kitten will have to be destroyed.
You saved those cats from sadists - real or imagined - and cared for them, and now they are all being taken away and killed!
In this situation, what does an animal collector think? Not "It somehow got out of hand," but "I didn't do anything to harm cats. I rescued them. My neighbours are responsible for killing my cats. Next time I'll find a house without any neighbours."
And the scary thing is that there probably are plenty of animal collectors living away from neighbours - living in squalid conditions, believing they are helping animals while they are actually causing unimaginable suffering and neglect.
Case History of a Collector
The following is a fairly typical case history.
Years ago Mrs X was involved with her local branch of the Cats Protection League (now Cats Protection). She had always owned cats, had deep affection for them and great interest in cat welfare and rescue. However in the last few years, Mrs X crossed the line from cat lover/pet owner to being a cat collector. She had always owned between 4 and 6 cats and had ample space indoors and in the garden for this number although Mr X would have preferred no more than 3 cats - a suitable "maximum" number for a 2 person household. Mrs X was, and still tries to be, a good owner providing food, clean litter and plenty of love and affection for the cats. However, after her husband's retirement, her cat collecting took a turn for the worst.
Mr and Mrs X left their semi-detached home and moved in with Mrs X's parents in their large detached house. In return for caring for Mrs X's parents (let's call them Mr and Mrs Y), Mr and Mrs X were to inherit this larger house on the death of the Mt and Mrs Y; the sale of the house would allow them to move into a smaller house and have plenty of money put by for their senior years. Mr and Mrs Y were very elderly and infirm, in particular Mr Y who was being nursed at home by his wife.
Mrs Y owned 8 cats, all neutered or spayed. When Mr and Mrs X moved into Mr and Mrs Y's home, it was obvious that Mrs Y was unable to care for the cats properly and had not been caring properly for some time. The house stank of cat urine and some areas of the carpet and wall-plaster were sodden from being constantly urinated on and with Mrs Y's attempts to clean up. Because she had used household bleach, this had provoked the cats into a greater spraying frenzy and she had eventually quit cleaning up. There was dried up cat faeces behind the furniture where the cats were using any private space as a litter tray. The 3 available litter trays were not being cleaned thoroughly enough for the cats and some of the cats were unhappy about sharing toilet facilities. Mr and Mrs Y were too infirm to move the furniture and clear up the faeces. Beneath the sodden carpet and behind the furniture, the floorboards were starting to rot.
Mr and Mrs X took their 6 cats with them, making 14 cats in total. This added to the territorial marking, the introduction of newcomers caused the resident cats to spray more. Meanwhile the unnerved newcomers urinated and defecated beneath the chairs and beds, being too scared to venture out to use one of the 5 or 6 litter trays. During the next 3 years, 5 of the cats had died of old age and age-related illness. Instead of the number going down to 9 cats, it had risen to 16 and had probably peaked at 20 cats. It was hard to tell because cats were being sneaked into the house by Mrs Y, Mrs X and Mrs Y's other children and her grandchildren and neighbours who thought of Mrs X and Mrs Y as the local "cat-ladies".
Mrs Y is almost certainly a cat collector with the assistance of her children, grandchildren and friends taking stray, unwanted or sick cats to her. During her lifetime she had rarely had fewer than 10 cats around the place and even if Mr Y had curtailed her collecting, he had become too infirm to protest at living in squalor. Mrs Y didn't have the heart to turn any of the cats over to a cat shelter or to find them new homes.
Mr X had managed to control his wife's cat collecting prior to their moving in with her parents. He had tried to limit her to 3 cats, but she had sneaked additional cats home and kept them hidden from her husband. Mr X was too soft-hearted to make her turn the cat over to a shelter when he finally found out about it though he had managed to limit the cat collecting when the household reached the 6 cat mark. The problem was that once they had moved in with Mr and Mrs Y, Mrs X's collecting behaviour was reinforced and though Mr X could try to control his wife's problem, he could not control his mother-in-law's problem. His wife claimed that any new cat was not hers, but her mother's.
The 16 cats are also not happy. Seven of the 16 cats are indoor-outdoor cats and though they are neutered, they fight frequently - a sure sign of stress and over-crowding. The remaining 9 cats are indoor-only cats and though there are 7 litter trays in various rooms, Mrs X and Mrs Y cannot keep up with the task of cleaning and refilling them. The indoor cats are stressed and they spray and urinate everywhere. They also defecate on chairs or beds as a way of marking territory (middening), causing other cats to over-mark by spraying or middening in the same place. The indoor cats spray on any new things they soon ruined Mr and Mrs X's belongings by spraying them - this behaviour was worsened because of the scents of Mrs X's own cats.
Mrs X consistently refused to discuss the subject of too many animals. Taking them to a shelter is categorically out of the question and though she promised to home some of them, she has never done so. The time spent caring for the cats and the state of squalor means that Mr X is considering divorce as the only solution. Mr X believes that his wife's behaviour is inherited and the fact that there are now two cat collectors under one roof has brought out the worst of the collecting behaviour in Mrs X. He cannot understand how she is prepared to live in squalor, or how his father-in-law tolerated it.
In an attempt to prevent more cats entering the household, Mr X refused to clean litter trays or do the feeding. He believed that his wife and mother-in-law would stop adopting cats when they realised they could not keep up with the tasks. This did not work, they adopted more cats even though they no longer had enough time to provide proper care. They still believe they are good cat-owners. Mrs Y and her daughter see themselves as caring cat rescuers, little realising that they are not doing their cats any favours. While some families have the time, resources and energy to cope with this number of cats and keep the household clean and fight-free, the fact that Mrs X and Mrs Y cannot bear to part with any of the cats, even though the cats are showing signs of distress at the conditions, shows that they are not rescuing they, they are collecting them.
Far from inheriting a large house and being able to sell it at a profit, Mr and Mrs X will inherit an unsaleable property. The soft furnishings - carpet, bedding, drapes, furniture and wall-coverings - have been shredded and stink of urine. Much of the plasterwork has been damaged by the constant wetness and the electrical system is probably unsafe or corroded. The wooden fabric of the house - walls, floorboards, window-frames, doors - is rotting from constant wetting. It would have to be stripped down to the bare brick and timbers to tackle the wet rot and left empty to allow the ammonia and faeces smells to dissipate. It is a classical cat-collector house and may end up being condemned as unfit for habitation.
Mr X reached breaking point when one of the cats sprayed his dinner as he set it on the table. More than anything he wants his wife back they way she was and with no more than 3 cats. Even with 6 cats, the situation was manageable but the living in filth, his clothing reeking of cat urine and faeces and forever paying cat care bills has left him with little self esteem. He knows that his wife's behaviour will not change for as long as they are living with her mother. Despite his wife's protestations, Mr X will eventually have to call in his local SPCA to assess the situation for animal neglect. Despite accusations that he is trying to "get the house", he wants Mr and Mrs Y's physical and mental states assessed by Social Services and they may have to move into assisted accommodation although this will almost certainly mean "no pets". He knows that this will cause his wife to divorce him, but he has no intention of remaining with her in the deteriorating house. His wife may continue to live in her parents house (if she can afford the household bills and if it is not condemned as a health hazard) but she will be subjected to regular checks by local authorities and SPCA to control her cat collecting.
Having spent his adult life trying to cope with his cat collector wife, Mr X realises that he cannot cope with both her and her cat collector mother and that his best chance of preserving his health and self-esteem is to leave the squalor behind while he can still afford to do so.