Warren County, North Carolina, Animal Control Director Elma Rae Greene recently took custody of a herd of allegedly maltreated horses found on the same property as carcasses of several other animals. While the case against the animals' owner remains pending, Greene said owners' ability to care for animals for any reason is always at the heart of her animal cruelty investigations. Frequently, those cases involve owners who have more horses than they the resources to care for them. As a result, Greene said that it might be time to redefine what it means to be a horse hoarder.

Clara Ann Mason, DVM, a veterinarian in Winfield, West Virginia, and a frequent lecturer on equine welfare issues, agrees. She would like to see law enforcement jurisdictions nationwide accept an absolute definition of animal hoarding.

“We think of the old lady with 100 cats, but someone could have four horses and still be a hoarder,” Mason said.

Mason said the incidence of animal hoarding increases during tough economic times, and is likely to involve objectifying animals to serve their owners' delusions.

She also said hoarders tend to be narcissistic and seek to be seen as more affluent than they really are: “People say, 'Look at me, I have all these horses,' ” Mason said.

Finally, Mason said that, in general hoarders, don't believe that their animals are under fed, or that they breed their animals indiscriminately

“They're delusional," she said. “Hoarding is just one element in a bigger puzzle about abuse.”

Morgan Silver, executive director of the Horse Protection Association of Florida, said many rescuers believe hoarding has less to do with large numbers of animals than with abuse. But hoarding is not generally the basis for an animal cruelty investigation, she said.

“A hoarder is defined as anyone who cannot emotionally, financially, or physically look after his or her animals, and this might mean two animals or 200,” Silver said. “But though we have an awareness of a hoarding situation, it is the condition of the animal that comes into play when we remove or seize an animal and when we charge the owner,"

Potentially, a uniform definition of what it means to be a hoarder could lead to legislation that would officially beef-up the toolboxes of state and county prosecutors. Even so, New Mexico attorney Blair Dunn believes the strict enforcement of existing law is better than adding still more legislation to animal cruelty statutes.

“I wonder if its necessary,” Dunn said. “We have pretty good laws and I worry that (with additional hoarding legislation) you would have a tough time crafting a statute that does not have unintended consequences of end up being administered unfairly.”

Still, Greene said a better definition of hoarding, or even hoarder-focused legislation, could be useful: “It would give us more flexibility,” she said.

In the meantime, Jennifer Williams, PhD, president of the Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society, in College Station, Texas, said attention to the hoarding issues in general is helpful in promoting public interest in animal cruelty and neglect.

“Cruelty of animals has become a media sensation, and even with neglect cases we see people becoming immune to them,” she said. “But with all these hoarder (television) shows, people perk up their ears, and that's good.”