Japan’s graying population has caused local governments to struggle to cope with the burgeoning problem of animal hoarding among seniors who are suffering from dementia or worsening chronic diseases.
According to officials, homes are becoming overrun with urine and feces from pet dogs and cats, making a case for central and local government officials to draft policies to address animal abuse and seek the advice of animal welfare specialists.
A 73-year-old housewife in Sendai began looking after five kittens following the devastating March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. She took five cats in that were born in the neighborhood after her husband, 79, started feeding them. Living off a pension, the couple could not afford to have the cats neutered, and their numbers increased to over a dozen within six months. As breeding continued, they came to care for even more cats.
“We were responsible, so even if it was hard on our living situation, I had to keep them,” the woman said.
The woman was hospitalized on and off and her husband’s dementia worsened. A city official later found large amounts of feces and urine in their home last summer, after neighbors began complaining of the smell.
The official suggested the cats be spayed, neutered or destroyed, but the woman refused, so volunteers had to take the animals.
“Pets belong to owners, and it’s difficult to deal with (large numbers of animals) if they refuse to give them up,” a Sendai official said.
People with large numbers of pets are often seniors. Typically, older adults become highly reliant on pets because of social isolation in the wake of illness, unemployment or death of family members.
According to the Environment Ministry, the number of cats and dogs put down at shelters run by local governments in fiscal 2017 came to 43,216 — the first time the number fell below 50,000 since such data were collected. A 2018 survey by the Japan Pet Food Association found that 9.6 million cats, compared to 8.9 million dogs, were kept as pets in the country.
The issue of animal-hoarding “cannot be settled if it is seen merely as an animal issue,” said a head official of a local government.
In the city of Nagano, a person in charge of animal protection and a welfare agent from the municipal government work as a team when visiting elderly animal owners.
Because many owners refuse to give up their pets to the city, the welfare official will teach them how to restructure their lives to avoid keeping too many pets.
The Environment Ministry will conduct a survey of prefectural and major municipal governments in the current fiscal year to work out guidelines for the prevention of excess pets in fiscal 2021.
In Britain, courts can ban people from keeping animals if they are ruled to have abused them by “hoarding” or through other ill-treatment, according to Nai Machiya, a veterinarian belonging to the Japan Animal Welfare Society.
“Japan needs similar legislation to rein in owners,” Machiya said.