Monday, August 8

The Noah Syndrome of compulsive hoarding of animals: “It is a disorder and a way of fleeing from loneliness”

37 cats, of which five were puppies, and one rabbit. All these animals were those that were taken from a flat in the Raval before the summer by technicians from the Department of Management and Protection of Animals of the Barcelona City Council. The neighbor who had them crammed into his house, at risk to his health and that of the animals themselves, is one of the many cases of Noah’s Syndrome that are detected in Spain every year, the colloquial name by which the disorder is known accumulation of animals. So far in 2021 alone, more than 300 specimens have been intervened for this reason in the Catalan capital.

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The figure for this year, recently released by the Barcelona city council, represents a surprising 23% of all the 1,279 animals that the City Council units have rescued in the last nine years, since 2012. The majority, cats (586) and dogs (422 ). This is a large increase that has forced the council and specialist psychiatrists to wonder why, although for now no one has a clear answer. “In reality, the interventions that we have made have been few, but of a very important number of animals, so for the moment we think that it may be a coincidence”, says Anna Ortonoves, head of the Department of Management and Protection of Animals. “Above all, we have found that in the cases of accumulation of cats there were many, with dogs not so much because when there are five or six they bark a lot and it can be detected”, he adds.

Noah’s Syndrome is a mental health problem, a psychiatric disorder, of which the details have only begun to be known ten years ago. It is often suffered by people between the ages of 50 and 70, who live alone. More women than men. It is officially considered a disorder, linked to other cumulative ones such as Diogenes Syndrome, since it was officially included in the DSM-5 manual of the American Psychiatric Association. Before, the first cases began to be studied in the 80s, in New York, although at that time it was basically considered an eccentricity or a sign of marginality. It did not help much to combat the stigma, according to experts, that the figure of the old woman became popular in The Simpsons crazy about cats.

In Catalonia, the first great case that is remembered is that of the town of Pontós, in the province of Girona, when in 2010 a neighbor was found who had a hundred dogs on his farm.

“The apparent intention of people who suffer from this syndrome is to do good to these animals, but they end up causing misfortune, because the animals end up very neglected”, observes Antonio Bulbena, director of the Department of Psychiatry and Legal Medicine at the University Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), founding member of the Institute of Neuropsychiatry and Addictions (INAD) of the Hospital del Mar and one of the specialists in this field. “It is a disorder and probably a way of fleeing from loneliness, which responds to the fear of not being useful, of not being loved, of being rejected”, explains this doctor.

Bulbena participated in the first study developed in Spain on Noah’s Syndrome, by the Hospital del Mar Medical Research Institute (IMIM), which analyzed 27 cases that had an average of 50 animals, 75% of them in poor physical condition, with wounds and infectious diseases. The complexity of the accumulation of animals is that it represents a triple problem: the disorder of the affected person, the lack of sanitation that sometimes ends up affecting even the neighbors – who usually give the alert – and the lack of welfare of the animals. It is not usual that they stop feeding them, but they do have diseases and that they breed in an uncontrolled way.

At first, the City Council’s interventions were solely to safeguard the health of the animals, which are transferred to the Companion Animal Shelter Center (CAACB). In practically all cases, according to Ontonoves, the accumulator denies that it is neglecting its animals and, therefore, does not accept to hand them over voluntarily, with which they have to open a file and request a court order. This was done in the last case of the Raval. The difference with previous years is that before the animals were taken and the case was closed, but now they have a protocol by which the Social Services intervene and, if necessary, the specialists of the Hospital del Mar. In each district there is a Table Accumulators to address their casuistry with all parties.

Dr. Bulbena has attended home interventions on many occasions. “They are very refractory cases, which also tend to have a bad relationship with the family because they have chosen the animals before them,” he says. Unlike other disorders, which are usually exacerbated by poverty, this psychiatrist assures that Noah’s Syndrome occurs both in marginal areas and in upper-class neighborhoods. What does unite most of them is that their treatment to leave this disorder behind is very complicated. It doesn’t help that they are older people. In psychiatry, acute problems tend to be easier to deal with than chronic ones.

From the outset, Bulbena points out, many go out to look for new animals after the interventions. “They are people who lack awareness of the disease and who have emerged from loneliness and fear Helping to animals, to see how you take that away from them, “he recalls.” One possibility, although costly, is to try to channel this altruistic behavior towards other aspects such as animal sheltering institutions, “he says, referring to some who enter to collaborate in a supervised way with protectors and entities that give food to animals. “But if at the age of 60 you find yourself not tolerating people, it is easy to lock yourself up again,” adds the doctor.