Voters in Dudley, Mass., passed a ballot measure on Tuesday making it illegal to own more than three cats without a special license. The new law came about after residents complained that one woman's 15 cats were running amok in neighbors' yards. In an Explainer column first published in 2005 and reprinted below, Daniel Engber gets to the bottom of the "cat lady" phenomenon.
A Virginia judge declared on Monday that 82-year-old Ruth Knueven is unfit to own pets, after animal-control officers seized her 488 cats. Local law enforcement and animal-control officials say they found 120 cats in her house in 2001 and that they've discovered several other cat hoarders in the area over the past year. What's the deal with "cat ladies"?
Not all animal hoarders are cat ladies, but most are. The typical person who gets caught with more pets than she can handle is a woman over the age of 60 who lives alone. Experts say there are a handful of animal-hoarding cases per 100,000 Americans each year, which translates to a few thousand incidents annually. The problem seems to be a global one: The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium receives e-mails about animal hoarders in the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and Latin America.
Dooley Worth and Alan M. Beck conducted what may have been the first survey on the issue in New York City in 1981. They found that two-thirds of the obsessive collectors were women and that 70 percent were single. Cats and dogs were the most commonly stockpiled pets, and women were proportionally more likely than men to acquire cats. (Subsequent research has found that people do occasionally hoard farm animals, rabbits, horses, and birds, but not as often as cats and dogs.) Worth and Beck found that animal hoarders tended to be somewhat isolated, but this seemed to be the result—and not the cause—of their large pet collections..." More