Might a cat be the cure for combating loneliness in older adults?

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Sandra McCune for the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS)

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Cat owners know only too well about the joy that comes from living with their companion animal. Although close relationships have existed between people and pets for centuries, it’s only relatively recently that organisations such as the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS) and others have begun to explore the health benefits of the human-animal bond, and publish reports about the positive effects companion animals may have on social isolation and loneliness which afflicts millions of people worldwide.

Pet owners are convinced that living with companion animals improve their mental health and psychological well-being. In a US survey in 2021, 87 percent of pet owners reported they had personally experienced the mental health benefits of living with a companion animal.

The physical health risks of loneliness may be especially severe for older adults, who are likely to experience stressful life transitions and health issues. But other vulnerable people such as those with mental health conditions, and those who live alone, are also affected more than most by an increased lack of social interaction.

Several studies have shown that older cat owners may enjoy health and cognitive benefits from sustained cat ownership when Aging-in-Place. The popularity of cats in many countries means they are well positioned to provide opportunities for companionship and nurturance at a time of life when social networks tend to decrease.

A new feasibility study looked at whether these benefits of owning a cat might be experienced by older adults who foster a cat. Fostering rather than ownership may be a more attractive option for older adults who may fear a young cat will outlive them.

A person sitting on a step next to a cat Description automatically generated The study, published in the Journals of Gerontology, Series B, and funded by HABRI, was conducted by researchers at the University of Georgia and Brenau University. The research team explored the impact of fostering a shelter cat on loneliness and well-being in older adults living alone. The research also investigated whether these older adults would express interest in adopting their foster cat after common barriers, such as access to veterinary care, were removed.

Following recruitment, participants completed health surveys before shelter cats were placed with them and completed follow-up surveys at 1-month, 4-months, and 12-months post-adoption. Supplies were provided to ensure they could care for the cat for the duration of the study and received monthly check-ins and veterinary care to ensure human and feline participants remained in good health.

Findings from this feasibility study revealed that when adjusted for physical health, loneliness scores were observed to significantly decrease at the 4-month mark after the cat fostering began. A similar 4-month improvement that approached statistical significance was observed for mental health. Cats who took part in the study also benefitted as almost all (95.7%) of the older adults decided to adopt their foster cat at the completion of the study.

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“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,” said Dr. Don Scott, MD, MHS, Campus Director of Geriatrics and Palliative Care and Associate Professor of Medicine at August University-University of Georgia Medical Partnership, and co-investigator on this research project. “This project shows that fostering cats can make a measurable difference in the lives of older adults living alone.”

“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 spur the fostering and adoption of shelter cats into loving homes,” added Dr. Sanderson.

This study provides evidence to support the participation of older adults in Cat-Fostering Programmes for health and wellbeing benefits and to promote adoption of shelter cats.

For more information about the bond between you and your cat, visit the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS) website.

Please remember that you can also join the SCAS social media community by following us on Facebook and Twitter.

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