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How Many Cats Is Too Many? When Does Helping Become Hoarding?

By Liz Ozaist
And Shahreen Abedin
WebMD Feature from

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I was watering my postage-stamp-sized Brooklyn garden one morning last spring when a white-bibbed cat peeked out from under my azalea bush. As I weeded, the cat napped in the sun, eventually sauntering over to press himself against my ankle. Clearly, this was no skittish street cat.

When I was finished, he marched up the steps alongside me, fully expecting to be let inside. That night, I noticed he'd slipped under the gate to the basement and curled up beside the door. After three days of this, I deduced he was either lost or recently deposited on the curb, which meant I had to find him proper shelter.

As the cat-allergic owner of two dogs, adopting him myself was not an option. After unsuccessfully trying to convince several (cold-hearted) cat folk in my life that he'd make a fine pet, a neighbor suggested I call a woman who ran a local cat-rescue program. She came highly recommended. At the least, I figured she'd be able to suggest some no-kill centers.

Helping or Hoarding?

When she answered the phone, the woman sounded flustered, but I chalked it up to the kid screaming in the background. Almost immediately, she said she could come by within an hour, but she needed to talk to her husband first. "I'm currently fostering eight cats and we have four of our own," she said. "But I'm sure he'll be fine with it. Let me call you back."

Once I hung up, I started to do the math: One New York City apartment + three humans + 12 cats = CRAZY. Or does it?

Each year, some 250,000 animals are reported as victims of hoarding, and that's not counting the many cases that go unreported. At some point, we've all joked about those nutty cat people who collect kitties the way some of us amass shoes. But what's the delicate dividing line between cat lover and cat hoarder? Is it five felines? 10? Can you pull off keeping a dozen without being labeled as pathological?

How To Know When It's Gone Too Far

For some professional insight, I turned to Dr. Gary Patronek, founder of the Boston-based Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium. Dr. Patronek makes regular appearances as an expert on the engrossing new Animal Planet show, "Confessions: Animal Hoarding." "Many paths lead to hoarding," said Patronek. "But the common thread involves trauma or loss -- either in childhood or adulthood -- that pushes a person's coping skills over the edge, so they retreat to the comfort of animals." 

Although stats show that about two-thirds of hoarders are women, it can also happen to men and even couples. Arecent "Confessions" segment featured Shelley and Chris,a married couple who've both chosen to sleep in their living room so their 65 cats can have the run of the house.

There's also a reason why the term "crazy cat lady" is so ubiquitous. "Many different kinds of species have been hoarded," said Patronek. "But cats are certainly very easy to acquire, and compared to dogs, they're much easier to keep and hide." But he was quick to point out that you can't really put a magic number on how many is too many. "Some people can competently care for a large group of animals and do it well, while others are challenged by even a few," he said. 

When it comes to animal hoarding, it's less about the numbers and more about the warning signs:

- Does the person keep acquiring pets even though they're barely able to care for the ones they already have? 

- Are they becoming more secretive and unwilling to accept help from others? 

- Are they convinced no one can provide the level of care they can? 

If someone you know exhibits these red flags, it may be time for an intervention because animal hoarders rarely seek help on their own.

In fact, most hoarders start out with the best of intentions, but become gradually overwhelmed as caregivers. In most cases, they also acquire animals passively, rather than actively looking to add to their brood.

When the woman with 12 cats called me back, I asked if she'd connected with her husband. After a long pause, she said yes. I could sense that the conversation hadn't gone well. "It sounds like you have a full house already," I said. "I have a neighbor who expressed some interest in taking the cat, so let me see if she's still willing. If not, I'll get back to you and maybe we can discuss good shelters." Luckily, my neighbor had been thinking about getting a cat for some time, which made the timing perfect.

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