The Simpsons Crazy Cat Lady and Her Psychiatric Illness

Well, the writers and producers of the Simpsons show have done it again.  Identified a bizarre behavior, turning it in a readily identifiable character that any of us recognizes on some level.

We're speaking of Crazy Cat Lady, a recurring character on the eternally running Simpsons television program.  Who is the Crazy Cat Lady?  Before her breakdown, she was Dr Eleanor Abernathy MD JD,  (left, at age 24) now a mentally-ill woman who surrounds herself with a large number of cats.  She's not just a hoarder, she is an Animal Hoarder, and that is recognized as a psychiatric disorder in its own right.

When she was eight, Eleanor Abernathy was a smart and ambitious young girl who wanted to be both a lawyer and a doctor "because a woman can do anything". She was studying for law school at 16, and by 24, she had earned an MD from Harvard Medical School and a JD from Yale Law School. However, by 32, suffering from burnout, she had turned to alcohol, became obsessed with her pet cat, and would randomly take to cutting pieces of her own hair. By the time she was 40, she had assumed her present state, suffering from the defined psychiatric illness of animal hoarding.*

Animal hoarding is a psychiatric disorder that consists of accumulating large numbers of animals at home, usually cats and dogs, without providing them with a minimal standard of care. The disorder is largely unknown despite its negative effect on the health of both the people who suffer from it and the animals involved.

Currently, when a case is detected, the animals are removed but no attention is given to the person suffering the disorder.  We all tut and tsk, and are outraged at a person doing this to animals.  To the animal hoarder, his pets are well cared for, he or she does not realize is that his or her animals are in poor health and so, soon begins to hoard them again. It's heartbreaking to see animals found obviously suffering malnutrition, dehydration and parasitic infestation, with illnesses or uncontrolled breeding, all in a very unhygienic space.  Yet to the person suffering the disorder, why anyone would take the "pets" they love and care for bewilders them.  It is a symptom of their disorder, perhaps part of their overall delusion.

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The researchers believe that this disorder has implications for mental health, animal welfare and public health and therefore that recognizing its presence in our society is the first step in identifying and detecting cases early and dealing with them in the most efficient possible way. 

As writers, we can help spread the word about this disorder through our fiction and non-fiction, blogs and comments.  So Write On!, and spread the word.  Thanks to the creators and writers of the Simpsons for providing a convenient point of reference for getting this message to the people.

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This is the first study to provide data on this syndrome in Europe and it has been possible thanks to the relationships of the researchers with organizations dedicated to the protection of animals. This put them in contact with various cases of the disorder and aroused their interest in the issue. Seeing that there was a vacuum in Europe they decided to contact the National Association of Friends of Animals (ANAA) and to retrospectively analyze the cases that they had collected in their database between 2002 and 2011. They created a questionnaire for the experts who had participated in these cases and all the information that the organization had available was classified and standardized.

Until now all existing research on the issue has been carried out in the US, Canada and Australia, but with this study it has been demonstrated for the first time that this mental disorder also occurs in Europe and with similar characteristics. For the time being the data is not sufficient to know the percentage of the population which suffers from the disorder, nor to better understand the profile of those who hoard.

Story Source:  Materials provided by IMIM (Hospital del Mar Medical Research Institute).  P Calvo, C Duarte, J Bowen, A Bulbena, J Fatj. Characteristics of 24 cases of animal hoarding in Spain. Animal Welfare, 2014

*  Illustration and information source:


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