Hoarding, a symptom of mental illness? Doctors weigh in

Depression, paranoia can be eased by animals

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- There's no telling how long animals recently rescued out of a Lake Worth home allegedly suffered at the hands of their owner. The Palm Beach County Animal Care and Control Director says a crime was committed, mental health professionals call it something else.

"These people don't see what they're doing. If pushed they think their animals are much better off with them. They don't see the shape of their animals or homes," says Dr. Ros Maumald, a clinical psychologist in Boca Raton.

Doctor Maumald has had no dealings with this recent case in Lake Worth, but she's been treating two patients with mental illness that led to animal hoarding over the last year.

She says what starts as good intentions ends up hurting the animals.

Hoarders can suffer from depression, paranoia coupled with loneliness - and often take in too many animals trying to cope.

"It dispels their immediate anxiety but it doesn't solve the problem and they lose rational focus," says Bari Baitch, a mental health counselor.

Bottom line, Maumald says, the hoarder doesn't have the mental capacity to care for the pets.  

Dr. Lesley Hack, a  Boca Raton veterinarian, says she sees a case every few weeks. She often treats the animals back to health.

"The people want to do the right thing but they're in a situation where they have more animals than they can take care of," says Dr. Hack.

Help for the animal hoarder isn't easy. Like many other illnesses, doctors say it would take a lifetime of treatment.

"It's like drug addicts, they have to stay in treatment and want to stop and someone has to monitor them. Even if the animals are taken away, they're going to start again," says Dr. Maumald.

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