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Could lonely and isolated older adults be prescribed a cat by their doctor?

Many older adults struggle with isolation and loneliness. Could cats be the solution? At the same time, many humane societies have more cats to rehome than they can manage. Could lonely older adults be the solution?

Researchers at the University of Georgia and Brenau University developed a novel program where older adults were paired with a foster cat coming from a local humane society, with the opportunity to adopt. A Human-Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI)-funded feasibility study explored the impact of this program on the older adult participants and the cats. Researchers explored how fostering a shelter cat could impact loneliness and well-being in older adults living alone. They also wanted to learn if these older adults would be more likely to adopt their foster cat after common barriers, such as pet deposit fees, were paid by the study. Could it really be a win-win situation?

The study enrolled adults aged 60 and older living alone and without any pets. Participants completed health surveys before placement with cats and completed follow-up surveys at 1-month and 4-months post-placement. Participants could choose to adopt their foster cat any time between 1- and 4-months post-placement. If participants chose to adopt their foster cat, the study paid the adoption fee, and a 12-month post-placement survey was completed.

Findings from the study revealed that loneliness scores significantly decreased at the 4-month mark after the cat fostering began. A similar 4-month improvement that approached statistical significance was observed for mental health. However, at the 12-month follow-up, loneliness scores were no longer statistically significant. The researchers suggest that these one-year reports were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in a substantial proportion of older adults experiencing elevated levels of loneliness. 

Alexis Winger and Ambi

Alexis states that before she got Ambi, “I lived alone, and the loneliness was becoming oppressive. Ambi has brought an end to oppressive loneliness. There are still times when I am away from people too long, when I have no one to talk to and lonelines settles in, but then Ambi settles into my lap or just runs through the room, and I am not alone. Ambi has brought me smiles, laughter, responsibility and love.”

The day that Alexis picked out Ambi at the Athens Area Humane Society to foster. Alexis states “I didn’t expect to find a cat for me at the first visit, but as I walked in, my eyes connected with hers in the end cage. The minute she was in my arms, she was mine.”

This is a picture and text message that Alexis sent to Sherry Sanderson, one of the researchers in the study, during the Pandemic.

Photo Credit: Alexis Winger

Alexis still gets lonely occasionally, but it is not the oppressive loneliness she felt before she got Ambi. Alexis says “Ambi has brought me an end to oppressive loneliness.”

Photo credit: Photo and text message Alexis Winger sent to Sherry Sanderson.

What about the cats? Almost all (95.7%) of study participants decided to adopt their foster cat at the completion of the study. Dr. Sherry Sanderson, the team lead and Associate Professor at the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine, noted: “Our results show that by removing some perceived barriers to pet ownership, including pet deposit fees, pet adoption fees, pet care supplies and veterinary support, we can not only help older adults live healthier, happier lives but we can also encourage the fostering and adoption of shelter cats into loving homes”.

Dr. Kerstin Emerson, a Gerontologist in the College of Public Health’s Institute of Gerontology, Health Policy & Management at the University of Georgia, and an investigator from the study states, “In May of 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General stated that loneliness and isolation is an epidemic in this country, and their report placed an emphasis on the urgent need for a cure.” Dr. Don Scott, a Geriatrician and Campus Director of Geriatrics and Palliative Care from the Augusta University-University of Georgia Medical Partnership and also a researcher from the study, added, “The ill effects of loneliness and social isolation, particularly for older adults, are well-documented, and more strategies are needed to improve health outcomes for this population.” The investigators from this study plan to do a larger scale study. The hope is when an older adult seeks to prevent or ward off loneliness and isolation, they will collaborate with a support team prepared to explore feline companionship as part of an individualized holistic approach to care, and there will be programs in place and funding available to support this new approach to treating loneliness in older adults.

Judith Atkins and Bashi

Judith is semi-retired from nursing, but she still provides nursing care to some of the residents in the Senior Living Residence that she lives in. When recently asked what Bashi means to her, Judith sent back the following reply:

“He (Bashi) has been a comfort to two of my neighbors. While providing nursing care to a resident who was in hospice care, Bashi stayed with her until she died. I also took him to visit a resident with cancer and breathing problems when I went to visit. I also took Bashi to the nursing home to visit two people I took care of there.”

Judith went on to say, “He still enjoys catching balls and batting them into the hall closet, continues to steal straws from my drinks and claims all boxes. Best of all, he still likes my left shoulder to put his head on to make sure his world is okay. At night at times, I find him asleep on a pillow by my head. His love of people is unlimited, and he will try and go in any apartment with the door open to be loved on by strangers. He escapes into the hall to force me to exercise chasing him, and needless to say he is always the winner.”

Judith was ready to enroll in the study just days before the Pandemic occurred, and the Foster Cat Study was shut down for six months. Once the study resumed, participants were no longer allowed to go to the shelter to pick out their cats to foster. Rather Dr. Sanderson, would go to the shelter and send them pictures and videos of available cats they may be interested in. The picture on the left is from the very first time Judith met Bashi in her apartment. The picture on the right shows that their Human-Animal Bond remains strong. Photo credit: Sherry Sanderson

Judith and Bashi getting ready to make the rounds in the building to visit people. Photo credit: Sherry Sanderson

Judith and Bashi love to hold birthday parties at the Senior Living Residence where they both live. Here are pictures from Bashi’s second birthday party. Photo credit: (L) Sherry Sanderson; (R) Judith Atkins

Feature image by Pietro Schellino via Unsplash, public domain.

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