General Public Health Considerations for Responding to Animal Hoarding Cases

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Introduction

Animal hoarding is an under-recognized problem that exists in most communities and adversely impacts the health, welfare, and safety of humans, animals, and the environment. Animal hoarding is defined by four characteristics (Patronek, Loar, & Nathanson, 2006):

* failure or inability to provide animals minimal standards of sanitation, space, nutrition, and veterinary care;

* inability to recognize the effects of this failure on the welfare of the animals, human members of the household, and the environment;

* obsessive attempts to accumulate or maintain a collection of animals in the face of deteriorating conditions; and

* denial or minimization of the problems and living conditions for people and animals. Most hoarding cases involve private individuals who claim ownership of numerous animals in a single rented or owned facility. In some cases, established shelters, rescue no-kill groups, or puppy mills may create a physical setting that mimics a hoarding situation.

The management of recognized animal hoarding situations should be well planned, interdisciplinary, and handled by trained personnel. People may encounter risks while on a premises evaluating or responding to issues caused by animal hoarding itself or the animal hoarding may be an incidental finding during a visit for another purpose. Anyone aware of serious animal hoarding situations should report them to local animal control or public safety authorities for appropriate coordination, investigation, and follow-up. Remediation is extremely difficult and rarely successful in the long term. The multifaceted nature of these situations, refractory behaviors of individuals involved, unclear criteria about animal cruelty, and privacy and personal property rights can be major obstacles to permanent solutions. A complete discussion of remediation is beyond the scope of this article.

Protection of the health and safety of responders and others involved in the response is a priority for any animal hoarding incident. Anyone involved in a response should create a comprehensive plan prior to initiating an investigation (Figure 1). The following guidelines were developed to address public health concerns and the need for careful planning for responder safety in handling situations where animal hoarding or other dense concentrations of animals have caused unhealthy and unsafe conditions.

Preparing for a Response

Adequate preparation to protect responders and careful forethought and engagement of stakeholders prior to any action are important in achieving an acceptable outcome. Because animal hoarding situations are often complex, a full response is likely to be prolonged and involve multiple agencies, including those responsible for providing social services, law enforcement, and animal health and control services. Each scenario must be evaluated individually. For example, nuisance laws and precedence of authority vary among localities. Local public health agencies generally have broad authority to remediate known or suspected human health risks by prevention and control of known and suspected communicable diseases. These agencies also have authority to address environmental impacts to health affecting the community. Guidelines for planning and managing these efforts are available (The Humane Society of the United States, 1994).

One of the numerous issues to consider when preparing for a response includes ensuring that all appropriate agencies are informed and involved in the planning process. This step is especially relevant when there are legal concerns about proper evidence collection and chain of custody procedures. Also, because animal hoarding cases often attract attention from media, agencies should alert their public information officers. Requests for information from media should be funneled to a single public information officer, designated by the lead agency or community official, who will coordinate with all involved agencies. …