Perhaps because of cable televisionshows that profile people living in squalor, in homes filled with garbage and rodents and other harmful debris, we have come to associate these people with pack rats, albeit very extreme ones. While there may be some superficial truth to this, the reality is that pack rats are one thing, and people suffering from pack rat disorder, also referred to as compulsive hoarding, are quite another altogether.
The typical pack rat may be little more than a collector. Or they may keep things from their past—such as letters, photos, yearbooks, magazines and the like, which have some perceived personal value to that person. They also tend to be somewhat organized in their keeping of these possessions. The personal aspect of being pack rat, as well as the organizational aspect, help to set apart a pack rat from someone with pack rat disorder.
Pack rat disorder is a term not used as often anymore. The term more commonly used to describe this disorder is likely going to be compulsive hoarding, which is associated with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.
Clinically speaking, a pack rat is able to go about their daily life by keeping their interests in collecting things in check. It doesn't interfere with their daily lives; it doesn't create intensive clutter in their homes and lead to unsanitary living conditions. It doesn't cause the person to lose relationships.
Compulsive hoarding on the other hand can be all-consuming. Instead of collecting on a part-time scale, the collecting and keeping of things that have no monetary or intrinsic value—and the refusal to get rid of these things—are signs of pack rat disorder. Their lack of organization, their extreme devotion to what others would regard as the garbage piling up in their home, is another sign of the disorder. Their decision to protect their 'belongings' over salvaging the deteriorating relationships in their lives is another strong sign.
Despite being a seemingly insurmountable disorder, hoarding or pack rat disorder can be successfully treated provided the patient wants treatment. It is important that they be diagnosed by a qualified health care professional who can guide them into the right treatment approaches before their hoarding begins to do irreparable harm to their lives, personally, professionally, or both.