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NMSU students learn about animal hoarding through companion animal program

No matter how rough your day has been, what could be better than to come home and be greeted by a four-legged furry friend who only wants some of your undivided attention? You start to pet your loyal buddy and soon feel the stresses of the day melt away.


Girls on grass playing with dogs
Research shows that the Human-Animal Interaction has physical and mental benefits, such as fostering a relaxed state of mind and lowering blood pressure. Here, terriers Sebastian (left) and Score get some quality playtime with students in the Department of Animal and Range Sciences. (NMSU photo by Audry Olmsted)

Whether your companion animal is fuzzy, furry, feathered or scaled - or anything else in between - research shows that the bond between a human and their animal runs deep and has physical and psychological benefits for both.

That relationship and bond is explored every day at New Mexico State University through the companion animal program in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.

"This is very much a reciprocal relationship," said Gaylene Fasenko, an assistant professor in the Department of Animal and Range Sciences. "When we're petting a dog or a cat or a bunny and feeling those good feelings, our heart rate and blood pressure are being lowered. This is also happening in the animal. It's a mutually beneficial win-win situation."

Those good feelings seem to come from a hormone that is also a neurotransmitter called oxytocin, Fasenko said. In the last 20 to 25 years, researchers have started to better understand what they term the Human-Animal Interaction, and NMSU students have delved into the benefits of having a companion animal in the home through the college program.

But, what happens when the human caregiver is an animal hoarder and instead of creating a loving and safe environment, is unintentionally providing a stressful and unhealthy living space for their companion animals?

Karen Schaefer, Director of Student Counseling at NMSU, recently spoke with students in the companion animal program about what happens when the line of animal caring is blurred and becomes animal abuse and neglect.

Animal hoarding has been linked to people with obsessive-compulsive and anxiety disorders, and also to people who have attachment issues. Researchers have yet to fully determine what causes animal hoarding and what leads a person to hoard animals versus inanimate objects, but there appears to be one common thread between animal hoarders.

"The bottom line with animal hoarding is that the vast majority of hoarders will say they are either rescuing the animal or that the animals are their family and they love them dearly. They are unable to see the injury they are causing the animal either way," said Schaefer.

Some hoarders believe they are running an animal shelter or hospital, and that is how they understand and justify their situation. Even if a person does not have the financial means to properly care for their animals, they may feel that they can still provide better care for them than take them to a shelter where there is the possibility that animal could be euthanized.

But, as the number of animals in a home increases, the quality of their care begins to go down. Schaefer said animals suffer due to overcrowded living space, unsanitary conditions due to contamination from feces and urine, and the spread of contagious illnesses and diseases from one animal to the next. Animals can also be put under a great deal of stress if natural prey and predatory animals are forced to live together, and they may resort to cannibalism if not provided appropriate food and water.

"Animals need space," said Schaefer. "They are individual beings and they need space to move around. They need space to interact with other beings of their own species. In these hoarding situations, they are not getting that opportunity at all, so their development is abnormal in an abnormal environment."

The hoarding problem is exacerbated by people who do not spay or neuter their pets or let them run wild and become feral. A well-intentioned person who finds a stray might take that creature to someone in the area known to take in stray animals, rather than take it to a shelter, not realizing that they could be adding to a hoarding situation.

"What I want people to understand about animal hoarding is that it takes a village and it takes society to create these problems," said Fasenko. "Our society has got to start understanding that that kind of behavior is not acceptable when we're dealing with living creatures."

Most times, the hoarding situation is discovered only when someone reports the hoarder to authorities. Many times, people will have to relinquish their animals, and may have to go to court and/or receive counseling.

Schaefer has worked with animal hoarders and said that generally, people who do go through treatment are very likely to struggle and eventually return to their hoarding behavior to some extent.

Schaefer said she has only worked with one person who had some degree of recovery success.

Within the agricultural and livestock community, the Five Freedoms has been created to help guide people in the appropriate care of animals. The Five Freedoms are: freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from injury, pain or disease; the freedom to express their normal behavior and freedom from fear and distress. These freedoms, Fasenko said, can be applied to the care of companion animals.

"We really become - in my mind - responsible for those animals that we domesticate," Fasenko said. "We become responsible. We can't say, 'Well, I can't care for this cat anymore so I'll just let it run free and be feral,' because the life of a feral that has been domesticated is not nice."

Schaefer and Fasenko advise that if someone suspects they know an animal hoarder, to contact local animal control. It can be a difficult call to make, but the welfare of the animals and the people involved take precedence. Families and friends reluctant to take that step can bring the situation to the attention of a psychologist or counselor for guidance on how best to proceed.

"We were very fortunate to have Dr. Karen Schaefer come to our class," Fasenko said. "She has done research and is very well versed in all aspects of animal hoarding as a psychologist."

She hopes her students who attended Schaefer's presentation will help to educate others of the negative effects animal hoarding has for the animals as well as the humans.