We often hear people say when they walk through our doors, “I just want to take all of them home with me!” We understand the sentiment, as we bond with each and every animal that comes through our doors.

We also know that most people who say they want them all are just saying that because they feel bad that there are so many homeless pets in the world. They just want each of them to get the kind of permanent home they deserve.

However, for some well-meaning people, they aren’t actually able to control the number of pets they have in their house. These folks sometimes become animal hoarders.

What exactly is a hoarder? The definition isn’t exact, but usually involves someone who takes in a large number of animals and typically isn’t able to provide a clean area for them, proper vet care or fresh food and water.

“Hoarding is very often a symptom of a greater mental illness, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. For most hoarders, it is likely that their actions are the result of a true pathology, even though they are still usually able to function quite well in society,” said Randall Lockwood, HSUS vice president for Research and Educational Outreach.

The thought process behind hoarding usually begins with some logic, actually. Hoarders know that shelters are overcrowded, and, if they come across a cat or dog that is homeless, they know turning it over to animal control doesn’t guarantee its adoption. So they find room for it in their home or their backyard, even if they don’t really have room and can’t afford another mouth to feed.

In my previous life, I ran Meals on Wheels programs in Florida and encountered animal hoarders who were also clients. I’ll never forget Mrs. Farr, who passed away a few years ago. She loved cats and always had a few growing up.

By the time I met her, she was in her 70s and was very frail. I noticed a few cats outside her house one day when I was filling in for a vacationing driver.

When I knocked on her door, I was greeted by several more cats inside. She likely had about 30 cats living with her, along with the 10 or so homeless men who rented cots in her house, but that is another story for another time.

As the months passed, I got to know her a little better. I brought her donated cat food and learned more about the cats and how she got them all. Her friends knew she liked cats, so when one had a litter of kittens, one or two would end up at her house.

She considered herself a type of rescue, although she was in no position to feed them, let alone have them spayed or neutered.

She didn’t want me to take them to our local shelter and was even scared to have them altered because she was told that it would change their personalities.

A few months later, she called me to tell me she had some sick kittens, and she didn’t have the money to have them seen. My vet tech friend and I went over and took four kittens from her home.

One had a severally injured eye from being attacked by one of the other cats on the property. It was very ill and nearly died. Fortunately, the kitten was stabilized, and the eye was removed. The kitten bounced back to health and has been living as a “permanent foster” in my house for the past 11 years.

Hoarding is often even more than the neighborhood “cat lady” like Mrs. Farr originally was. Often, these individuals need help from professionals who can help them get their life back in order. If you know of someone like this, please try and get them to seek help.

If they are a senior, your local Council on Aging would be a good place to start. Animal Control can also be a good resource. Additionally, calling the 211 helpline will provide you with resources for them.

You can also call us at 648-6863 to help in any way we can, such as providing affordable spay and neuter to get their numbers of pets under control.

Remember, we all want to “save them all,” but, in cases like these, sometimes we need to “save” pets from the people who took on more than they could handle.

Gary Willoughby is the president and CEO of the SPCA Albrecht Center for Animal Welfare.