Published on January 1, 2012.

What is compulsive hoarding?

For years, social service professionals struggled to differentiate between mere clutter or poor housekeeping and what is a potentially unhealthy amount of material in a living space. Professionals also wanted to avoid passing moral judgments on a person’s lifestyle.

Today, most experts concur that the condition of “compulsive hoarding” is defined by three main features:

  • The accumulation and failure to discard a large number of objects that seem to be useless or of limited value;
  • Extensive clutter in living spaces that prevents the effective use of the spaces;
  • Impairment of basic living activities.

People who hoard compulsively are viewed differently than collectors who accumulate and maintain specialized, well-organized collections of objects considered to have value. Compulsive hoarders are unable to organize their possessions, and the clutter interferes with basic activities such as cooking, cleaning, and even sleeping in a bed.

Sometimes occurring in tandem with hoarding possessions is animal hoarding, where people accumulate a large number of pets but fail to provide them with an adequate living environment.

To help diagnose and treat compulsive hoarding, experts have created a clutter scale: a series of photographs of a kitchen, bedroom, and living room with increasing amounts of clutter. These photos, which go from stage 1, where a room is clutter-free, to stage 10, where the room is almost completely filled, have become a valuable tool to help compulsive hoarders self-identify a problem or for social workers and first responders to identify potentially hazardous conditions.

For more resources on hoarding, visit the International OCD Foundation.