Until recently, hoarding and animal hoarding were not publicly known except by those directly affected — typically neighbors or family members.
But since the finding of 492 cats — 221 of them dead — in two homes belonging to Mount Vernon resident Ruth Knueven, 82, public interest has increased.
"Animal hoarding is different from hoarding of possessions," said John Yetman, chairman, Fairfax County Hoarding Task Force. "Animal [hoarding] is lumped in with hoarding in general because some of the behaviors are the same."
Hoarding is the excessive storage of items in and around a home to the extent that all available space from floor to ceiling may be occupied, according to the Fairfax County Hoarding Task Force. Hoarders keep an extreme, disproportionate collection of items such as newspapers, magazines, empty containers, old clothing, paper, trash, rotting food and sometimes animals, according to the task force.
When animal hoarders begin "collecting" animals they are not aware that what they are doing is unusual. They think they are taking care of the animals and then things get out of control, said Yetman.
"A person who hoards hangs onto something they can't discard," he said explaining the similarities between animal hoarding and hoarding in general. Yetman is an environmental health specialist for the Fairfax County Health Department.
The task force was created in 1998 to combine the resources of county agencies to provide a coordinated response to residential hoarding when it threatens life, safety and property, said Yetman. Those agencies include the health department — the primary agency involved because of health and safety issues — the county fire and rescue department, department of family services and when animals are involved, animal control.
HOARDING IS NOT limited to any age, race, gender or nationality, according to the task force.
But Barbara Hobbie, supervisor of the county's Adult Protective Services, said hoarding is more prevalent in the elderly.
"We're not sure why, it may be that it takes a life time to fill up a house," she said. "Many [hoarders] have a substantial amount of money, so money really isn't the issue."
A small number of animal hoarding cases have been reported in the county since the task force's inception, said Hobbie. She said of those reported she cannot give an average number of animals found, but did say cats were the animals involved in every case she has worked on.
"It's been pretty bad when it comes up," she said about cases involving animals.
Referring to the Knueven case, she said she had "never heard of a case like that" in relation to the amount of cats involved.
Of the cats found, 271 were alive and 221 were found dead, according to the health department. Hobbie said most of the living cats were euthanized because of health issues.
People who hoard can be from any educational or socio-economic level and are generally unaware that their living situations pose a danger to themselves and to others. Some hoarders are physically unable to throw away their collected items, said Hobbie.
"Hoarding behavior is pretty novel," said Hobbie. "We don't have many experts on [hoarding] because we don't have large number of hoarders in the community that we're addressing."
APPROXIMATELY FIVE to seven cases of hoarding are reported a month, said Yetman. Of those usually five are "truly hoarding cases" he said.
"If a person can't figure out what to do or to find out where to stay, then housing and mental health officials will step in," said Yetman. "The challenges for us, from a building code enforcement side, is we have a law that we have to deal with."
Under the health department two laws are enforced, said Yetman. One regarding the building code and physical function of a house and the second dealing with the health and safety of a living situation. Violations of these laws are misdemeanors and can result in a $1,000 to $2,500 fine and jail time from six months to one year.
In severe cases of hoarding, people can fill living spaces to the point where hallways are blocked and thin pathways between items are the only connectors to different rooms, said Yetman.
People can also neglect home maintenance issues, he said. This can include letting garbage pile up and general repairs to be ignored. Examples include letting a faucet leak until the floor begins to rot, or not fixing a clogged toilet, resulting in a person to "make due" without a toilet, said Yetman.
Fire hazards also become an issue because stacks of combustible materials can be placed by fireplaces, in ovens or next to stoves, he said.
In one case, a person died because medical personnel were not called in time to save his life. Because the residents were embarrassed about the condition of their house they did not want anyone to see the inside. Once emergency assistance was called, personnel could not get proper equipment into the house in time to save his life, said Yetman.
"When it becomes virtually impossible to get in a home and the person can't address the situation, that's what we would call a severe situation," said Yetman.
"Our department has social workers that are available on request that will provide support and help people clean up," said Hobbie. "If we can clean up the home and keep them there, that's our primary goal."
Family members or neighbors are generally the ones who report hoarding cases, because from the outside houses and neighbors may appear normal, said Yetman.
If a family member or neighbor is concerned about a person, or has reason to believe someone is hoarding either animals or other items, they should contact the health department at 703-246-2300.