The crazy cat lady explained

  • In recent years, cases of cat hoarding have become more commonplace in Singapore.
  • Learning that hoarding is a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (more popularly known as OCD) and that Singapore has been known as the OCD capital of the world, TheHomeGround Asia explores the reasons underpinning this trend.
Rescued cats from hoarders’ homes being transported into facilities for rehabilitation. (Photo courtesy of Causes for Animals Singapore)
Rescued cats from hoarders’ homes being transported into facilities for rehabilitation. (Photo courtesy of Causes for Animals Singapore)

A graveyard hidden in a corner of Radin Mas is home to about 30 cats. Kept in rusty cages, they appear to hardly move, twitching slightly when approached, while rats as big as kittens help themselves to the food in makeshift disposable bowls. The felines with matted fur are being kept in the cages by an elderly woman who is a self-proclaimed faith-healer.

Their plight was first brought to light by independent cat rescuer Nurul Huda Ismail, 32, and the story reported in The Straits Times on 11 November. Ms Huda has reported the case to the Cat Welfare Society (CWS) and the Animal and Veterinary Service (AVS).

This is one of two cases of animal hoarding that appeared in the media this year, but many have apparently gone undetected. 

The latest statistics on the issue was given five years ago by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA), the predecessor of the current Animal and Veterinary Services (AVS), under the National Parks Board (NParks). It showed that there was one case of animal hoarding in 2015. The number went up to 11 cases in 2016, and five cases as of June 2017. Most of the cases then involved cats or dogs. 

A check with AVS did not turn up any latest published statistics on the issue but according to some AWGs and independent cat rescuers, the hoarding seems to have worsened since the Covid-19 pandemic. The most recent report was in May when a family was told to remove 50 cats from the HDB flat in Bedok.

Dr Mythily Subramaniam, Assistant Chairman of the Medical Board (Research) at the Institute of Mental Health, says that hoarding behaviours have increased not just in Singapore but globally due to the pandemic,. This is evident mostly through the hoarding of masks and hand sanitisers. Hoarding in these cases arises out of the need to safeguard essential goods due to the “fear of scarcity and loss of control”. 

Animal hoarding is not exactly the same as hoarding of medical supplies. It is a complex and intricate issue which has far-reaching effects that encompass mental health, animal welfare and public safety concerns. According to Causes for Animals Singapore (CAS) and SPCA Singapore, animal hoarding has become more commonplace in recent years. 

Ms Christine Bernadette, Fundraising Coordinator of CAS, says that CAS handled approximately 12 cases of animal hoarding each year, and has seen a 50 per cent increase in cases this year compared to 2020. 

Animal welfare groups say managing animal hoarding is not a straightforward affair. Media reports in recent years have increasingly brought the hoarding of cats to public attention. In February 2017, the authorities raided a three-room flat in Yishun where there were 39 cats kept in cages caked in faeces. Many of the cats were malnourished and the flat was overrun with cockroaches. Twelve of the cats later died.

In June that same year, 94 cats were found in an even smaller place  — a  two-room unit in Fernvale Link. Although this was believed to be the biggest cat-hoarding case in Singapore, most of these felines did not have as severe  medical conditions.

Cat hoarding and how bad it can get

Both Ms Bernadette and Ms Aarthi Sankar, Executive Director of SPCA Singapore, say that cats are most likely to be hoarded. 

Ms Sankar says cat hoarding occurs when a large number of cats are kept in small flats where necessities such as water, food, space and hygiene “are below required standards of care”. Cats need to be provided with water, litter trays, sufficient food and space to live, she says.  These cats need to be fed, cleaned, and vaccinated or given appropriate medical care, adds Dr Mythily.  

The 94 cats, mostly Siamese were kept in cramped conditions in a two-room flat in Fernvale. (Photo source: Saving the Siamese / Facebook)

But the hoarding of cats is not just limited to the cramped HDB flats. There are cases that involve residents of landed property. Also, the hoarding of cats is not limited to Singapore. It is a phenomenon seen around the world.  A recent report in the United States found 90 cats kept in rusty cages at a farmhouse. Many of these cats suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and had to undergo dental extractions for rotten teeth.

Ms Sankar cautions that not everyone with multiple animals is a hoarder. A hoarder is someone who is unable to adequately care for the animals, but still insists on keeping them. Whenever SPCA Singapore is called upon to address animal hoarding issues, it observes unsanitary living conditions at hoarders’ homes and a reduction in the quality of food provided for the animals.

In addition, cats in such conditions are usually allowed to reproduce since the hoarders lack the financial means or are unwilling to sterilise them, usually allowing “things to get out of hand”, says Ms Bernadette. These squalid living conditions often result in medical and behavioural issues of the cats.

Ms Sankar adds that hoarded cats can suffer from long-term complications. They may not be comfortable being touched and in extreme cases, they have health issues such as malnutrition and diseases. 

Ms Bernadette also says animal hoarding puts a strain on the finances and health of the hoarders.

Local cat rescue group that goes by the Instagram handle @callmebymewmew found over 40 cats in a pest-infested home in 2020. (Photo source: callmebymewmew / Instagram)

Pet hoarding is more common than we think

Animal hoarding is a “complex phenomenon”, says Dr Mythily. There is no clear cause of animal hoarding, though it can be traced to certain phenomena. According to her, some researchers refer to animal hoarding as a symptom of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Others believe it to be an addictive behaviour, like shopping addiction, influenced by “impaired impulse control”. Then there are those who believe that the phenomenon may have resulted from one’s childhood trauma which brought about their inability to form fulfilling human relationships. They then turn to animals for “unconditional love”.

OCD is one of the most common mental health issues in Singapore, affecting 1 in 28 people in their lifetime. The  Singapore Mental Health Study (SMHS) of 2010 found that Singapore is the OCD capital of the world, with an OCD rate that is three times as high as that of Europe. 

In the same study, hoarding behaviour was assessed as one of the symptoms of OCD. The reported prevalence of lifetime hoarding among those with OCD was about 23 per cent, suggesting that some people with OCD might be hoarders. 

The SMHS of 2016 showed that 84 per cent of those meeting the criteria for OCD diagnosis did not seek professional treatment.  However, Dr Mythily cautions that not everyone who meets the criteria of hoarding has OCD. Similarly, not everyone with OCD is a hoarder. 

Some cat hoarders are often intelligent and they clearly start with kind intentions to rescue or take care of these stray cats. They often deceive themselves and even others to think that everything is under control. 

Owing to a lack of awareness, they are blind to the fact that the animals are suffering under their care. Without financial help, many do not have the cats sterilised and with cats being “prolific breeders”, they further deteriorate the living conditions of hoarders’ homes (which are usually flats), explained Ms Sankar.

What more can be done?

Cat hoarding cannot simply be attributed to mental health issues alone. “The key issue in Singapore is that cat ownership is not regulated”, Ms Sankar says, adding that the absence of compulsory microchipping schemes, mandatory meshing of windows and proper accountability for cat owners creates conditions for cat hoarding. 

To reduce instances of cat hoarding, Ms Sankar urges members of the public to ensure their pets have sufficient space, and have all their needs met. She hopes authorities will consider lifting the ban on cat ownership in HDB flats, and implement a more rigorous system that ensures provision of proper care of animals.

Largely, animals that have been rescued from hoarding are rehabilitated by animal welfare organisations. These efforts mostly depend on the public to adopt and support medical costs for sterilisation, says Ms Bernadette. 

“Hoarding can be very overwhelming and hoarders may not always be ready to seek help. We strongly urge anyone who is overwhelmed and at the risk of hoarding animals to reach out for help,“ Ms Sankar says. 

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