In the homes of people who are compulsive hoarders, the countertops, sinks, stoves, desks, stairways and virtually all other surfaces are usually stacked with stuff. And when there's no more room inside, the clutter may spread to the garage, vehicles and yard.

Hoarding affects emotions, thoughts and behavior. Signs and symptoms of hoarding may include:

  • Cluttered living spaces
  • Inability to discard items
  • Keeping stacks of newspapers, magazines or junk mail
  • Moving items from one pile to another, without discarding anything
  • Acquiring unneeded or seemingly useless items, including trash or napkins from a restaurant
  • Difficulty managing daily activities, including procrastination and trouble making decisions
  • Difficulty organizing items
  • Shame or embarrassment
  • Excessive attachment to possessions, including discomfort letting others touch or borrow possessions
  • Limited or no social interactions

People who hoard typically save items because they believe these items will be needed or have value in the future. A person also may hoard items that he or she feels have important emotional significance — serving as a reminder of happier times, for example, or representing beloved people or pets. People who hoard may report feeling safer when surrounded by the things they save.

It's important to note that hoarding is different from collecting. People who have collections, such as stamps or model cars, deliberately search out specific items for their collections. Collectors often categorize their items and carefully display them. Hoarders, on the other hand, will save random items they encounter in their daily life and store them haphazardly in their homes or surrounding areas.

Hoarding animals

People who hoard animals may collect dozens or even hundreds of pets. Animals may be confined inside, so they can be concealed more easily. Because of their sheer numbers, these animals often aren't cared for properly. Veterinarians may be the first to notice signs of animal hoarding when owners seek help for a steady stream of sick or injured pets.

When to see a doctor

Hoarding ranges from mild to severe. In some cases, hoarding may not have much effect on your life, while in other cases it affects you on a daily basis.

Clutter and difficulty discarding things are usually the first symptoms of hoarding. These early indications of a problem usually surface during the teenage years. As an affected person grows older, he or she typically starts acquiring things for which there is no need or space. By middle age, symptoms are often severe and may be more difficult to treat.

If you or a loved one has symptoms of hoarding, talk with a doctor or mental health provider as soon as possible. Some communities have agencies that help with hoarding problems. Check with your local or county government for resources in your area.

As hard as it might be, you may also need to contact local authorities, such as police, fire, public health or animal welfare agencies, especially when health or safety is in question.

May. 25, 2011