If it were completely up to researchers from Hospital del Mar Research Institute (IMIM) in Europe, the estranged cat ladies, whose homes are ornamented with the purrs and meows of beckoning felines, would be diagnosed with a disorder of animal hoarding.

The conclusions come on the heels of the first European study ever to investigate the behaviors of people who collect handfuls of pets, yet do not provide sufficient living conditions to maintain the health of those animals. Though typically lampooned in popular culture, so-called “cat ladies,” the researchers assert, are actually split evenly among both genders and tend to hoard dogs more often than any other animal.

Among the team’s 24 cases, they encountered a total of 1,218 dogs and cats and 27 hoarders. The average number of animals in each home was a staggering 50, with 75 percent of those cases involving poor welfare and conditions for the animals, such as the “presence of wounds, parasitic, and infectious illnesses,” the team reports. While much attention is given to rehabilitating the wounded animals, little care is given to the well-being of their owners, the team states.

"This is the first step towards public recognition of this disorder, a disorder that constitutes a growing concern for government as it is becoming a serious problem for public health,” Paula Calvo, a researcher of the IMIM research group on anxiety, affective disorders, and schizophrenia, said in a statement.

The study comes with genuine limitations, Calvo and her team concede. The data they obtained cannot estimate what percentage of the general population may suffer from the disorder, nor can they know which types of people suffer from it most often. What they do know is that “there are still no standardized action protocols for intervention in these cases,” Calvo states, which permits owners to continue their destructive cycle.

To collect their data, the team contacted the National Association of Friends of Animals (ANAA), in order to analyze the cases between 2002 and 2011 involving animal hoarding. The team then created a questionnaire for the experts who handled these cases, before standardizing and organizing all of their information.

Prior research in North America has discovered that many animal hoarders have suffered some form of trauma in childhood, and many lacked stable parental figures. Without a healthy outlet for grief, the hoarders turn to animal forms of companionship. And since they either choose not to spay or neuter their new pets, or simply can’t afford to do so, the quickly become overwhelmed.

“When you have a large number of animals, it’s hard for the pet owner to spend time with the animals,” Allison Cardona, program Director of the Cruelty Intervention Advocacy (CIA) program, told The Huffington Post. “The animals become fearful or shy. There’s also a lack of veterinary care and pets often are not spayed or neutered.”

The new research hopes to examine the other side of the issue — namely, how the mental health of the owners is affected by or influences their decision to keep so many animals. Before any concrete steps are taken, they argue, a clearer understanding is needed. “More research might help to find efficient protocols to assist in the resolution and prevention of this kind of problem,” the researchers conclude.

Source: Calvo P, Duarte C, Bowen J, Bulbena A, Fatjó, J. Characteristics of 24 cases of animal hoarding in Spain. Animal Welfare. 2014.