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No one needs science to tell them that both dogs and cats can make faithful and loving companions.  Plenty of science has shown that dogs can ease loneliness in people who are isolated, but what about cats?  One of the most rewarding research projects in which I have been involved has shown that cats can ease loneliness among isolated older adults. Volunteers in this study agreed to foster shelter kittens or cats for a minimum of four months with an option to adopt after the first month. Participants were asked to quantify the comfort they received from their cats and the perceived effect the cats had on their physical and mental well-being in surveys given in their first and fourth months enrolled in the study. For those who adopted, a third survey measured their satisfaction at 12 months. Veterinary care and food were provided during our study, and adoption fees were paid for those who decided to keep their foster cats, removing the financial barriers that often discourage older adults from adopting shelter animals.

Susan Cannone, one of 29 participants in our study, lost a beloved cat of eight years to a stroke and swore off animal companions forever. Forever lasted two months. In January of 2020, she responded to an advertisement in this magazine seeking human subjects to foster shelter cats. Volunteers had to be 60 or older and living alone with no other pets in the house. 

“I couldn’t stand coming home to nothing except the house,” Susan said. “To have somebody that you know is waiting for you and is happy to see you just makes all the difference.” After passing a cognitive test and assessments of her physical and mental health, Susan met my colleague and co-investigator Dr. Sherry Sanderson, associate professor in UGA’s College of Veterinary Medicine, at an Athens area shelter to select a cat. Susan was drawn to a female with a black and silver coat, but Dr. Sanderson went straight to a kennel of kittens with a warning sign that said: “Don’t bother us. We’re stressed.” She pulled out a male kitten who, in her expert opinion, didn’t look stressed at all. Susan saw him, he saw her, “and that was it,” she recalled. “It was love at first sight.”

In May of 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General released a study that called loneliness and isolation an epidemic. Another colleague of mine, Dr. Kerstin Emerson, clinical associate professor in the College of Public Health’s Institute of Gerontology, and a co-investigator on this study, said the report placed an emphasis on the urgent need for a cure. “While there are many causes of loneliness, we know that there are interventions that can help,” Dr. Emerson says. “We wanted to know if a cat fostering program could be one intervention that could help older adults who are experiencing loneliness.”

Dr. Sanderson says cats are a good option for older adults because they are more self-sufficient than dogs but still social enough to engage their owners in play and talk. Unlike dogs, they don’t require walks or intense physical exercise, which makes them good companions for owners with arthritis, heart disease and other health conditions. Our research adds to the growing body of evidence indicating the benefits of pet ownership. While a great deal of such research has focused on dogs, our study is the first to demonstrate that cat companions can decrease feelings of loneliness in older adults. The attachment to a pet appears to mediate the relationship between loneliness and general health for older people. However, not all older adults are able to meet the physical or cognitive demands of pet ownership, and there are potential risks, such as bites, scratches or falls.  But overall if an older person who is feeling alone can meet the responsibilities of pet ownership, having a feline buddy can ease that feeling of being alone.

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