New study offers promising results for both shelter cats and older adults
The results of a recent study suggest that fostering cats can significantly decrease loneliness and boost mental health of older adults in a win-win for society.
Researchers at the University of Georgia and Brenau University recruited 29 adults over the age of 60 and living alone (and independently) for The Impact of Cat Fostering on Older Adult Well-Being and Loneliness: A Feasibility Study.
Each participant agreed to temporarily care for a healthy, fully vetted cat from two local rescue groups—Athens Area Humane Society and Campus Cats—with the option to permanently adopt after one month or at the four-month mark.
After four months of fostering a cat, participants who completed the study showed significant decreases in loneliness scores and improvement in mental health—and over 95% chose to adopt their cats.
(Left to right): Marion and her cat, Frankie; Carole and Frankie during a home visit to deliver supplies after research was allowed to resume post-pandemic.
(Left to right): Miriam holding Isabella before her nail trim; and Isabella relaxing after her nail trim, which included lots of treats and love to reduce her stress.
Removing barriers to pet ownership
Steven Feldman, president of the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), the nonprofit that funded the study, said the “Fostering Felines” study is significant.
“Our hope is for this study to inspire support for similar programs across the country that pair foster cats with those experiencing loneliness and isolation,” he said. “This study provides a roadmap for removing barriers to pet ownership so that more people and pets can access and benefit from the human-animal bond.”
Feldman believes it provides an impactful, relatively low-cost way to help save feline lives and improve human lives.
“We hope that the success of the Fostering Felines study will help bolster and launch more supportive fostering programs for the 16 million older adults living independently alone in the United States, helping find millions of loving homes for cats, reducing feline euthanasia, and reducing loneliness in older adults through the comfort and support of the human-animal bond,” he said.
A key element of the study involved covering associated pet care costs, including veterinary care, supplies, and pet deposit fees to landlords, according to Sherry L. Sanderson, DVM, PhD, DACVIM (SAIM, Nutrition), associate professor of biomedical sciences at the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine and the study’s lead researcher.
“One of the barriers that we started to encounter while participants were calling and interested in the study was that they lived in places with pet deposit fees and they couldn’t afford to pay that,” she said. “We shifted the budget around so that some money was available for that.”
She noted that Nestlé Purina also supported the study by providing free cat food and cat litter for participants.
"The majority of the participants on the study could afford to buy food and litter once the study ended," Sanderson said. "But for those that struggle financially, we have continued to provide them with food and litter, and I have provided follow-up veterinary care."
Researchers from the Fostering Felines study (Left to right): Dr. Sherry Sanderson, Ms. Diane Hartzell, and Dr. Kerstin Gerst Emerson recruiting participants at a senior expo.
Pandemic impacts: Loneliness and shelter pets
Though the study has concluded, Sanderson still stays in contact with “quite a few” participants, even dropping by to offer nail trims and other care to their cats.
“The cats are still bringing joy into their lives,” she said. “I met not only some wonderful cats during the study, but some wonderful people.”
The study comes at a critical juncture. The pandemic highlighted and exacerbated the negative impacts of loneliness. In fact, a 2023 report from US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, MBA, declared loneliness as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Meanwhile, animal shelters across the country are overflowing in this third year of having too many animals and not enough adoptions—with an 18% increase in “non-live outcomes” for dogs and cats compared to 2022, according to data from the nonprofit Shelter Animals Count, which maintains a national database of animal sheltering statistics.
This study can positively impact two major problems simultaneously, according to Kerstin Gerst Emerson, PhD, a gerontologist and clinical associate professor at the University of Georgia’s Institute of Gerontology and an investigator on the study.
Starbucks gives kisses to owner Susan Canone
Health benefits of cat ownership in older adults
“What I love about researching loneliness is there are actually things we could do about it. We know that animals can help,” she said. “And that’s pretty incredible because it’s such a simple thing, but incredibly powerful.”
Her own research in a different study found that lonely older adults visit their physician’s office more often in an attempt to get social interaction—which typically isn’t effective or affordable. In contrast, pets can help lower blood pressure, reduce stress, and even provide a reason to get out of bed in the morning, she said.
“Loneliness impacts pretty much every part of a person—psychologically, physiologically, socially, mentally . . . It’s associated with a lot of really bad public health outcomes, like depressive symptoms, going into nursing homes early, higher blood pressure, higher risk for infections, all sorts of things that are concerning. Researchers even found it’s related to earlier death, or ‘premature mortality,’” she said. “So this (cat fostering solution) can really be a win-win situation.”
She hopes to be involved in a larger-scale study, which is in the planning stages, according to lead investigator Sanderson.
“Perhaps once we do a larger-scale study, if a person is lonely, their doctor would prescribe them a cat essentially to help with that loneliness, knowing that it’s been shown to help reduce loneliness and improve mental health,” Sanderson said. “That way more people are getting their loneliness addressed and more cats are getting adopted into homes.”
She also hopes once cat fostering is accepted as a proven treatment for loneliness in older adults, that the government will create a program to provide financial assistance to remove barriers to fostering cats, as the feasibility study did.
“That would be my dream goal,” she said.
Impact of Cat Fostering on Older Adult Well-Being and Loneliness: A Feasibility Study, The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, Oxford Academic (oup.com)
Loneliness poses health risks as deadly as smoking, US surgeon general says (PBS.org)
Intake and Outcome Data Q3 2023 Analysis, Shelter Animals Count
Chronic loneliness in older adults leads to more office visits to physicians (USA Today)
Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review Meta-Analytic Review (Brigham Young University)
Woman went to her pulmonologist for COPD. Her doctor wrote her a prescription for a cat (Today.com)
Freelance journalist Jen Reeder is former president of the Dog Writers Association of America. Bylines include Trends, CNN, BBC News, Inside Your Cat’s Mind, The Daily Beast, Family Dog Magazine, the TODAY show’s website, Woman’s World, HuffPost, and many other publications. She writes from her home office in Denver, Colorado.
Photos courtesy of those pictured and the University of Georgia and Brenau University Fostering Felines Study.
Photo credits (in order of appearance): (1) Amy Carter, (2-5) Sherry Sanderson, (6) Susan Canone.
Disclaimer: The views expressed, and topics discussed, in any NEWStat column or article are intended to inform, educate, or entertain, and do not represent an official position by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) or its Board of Directors.