UGA pilot study finds that cats are the pur-fect cure for loneliness

No one needs science to tell them that dogs make faithful and loving companions. Cats, on the other hand, could use the endorsement. The University of Georgia has provided just that in a pilot study that proves a second heartbeat in the house – even one thumping in the furry chest of a self-contained feline – can ease loneliness among the elderly.

Susan Cannone, one of 29 participants in the 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 Boom Magazine, an Athens publication targeted to members of the Baby Boomer generation, 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,” Cannone 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 Cannone met co-investigator Sherry Sanderson, associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Biomedical Sciences, at an Athens area shelter to select a cat. She was drawn to a female with a black and silver coat, but Sanderson went straight to a kennel of kittens with a warning sign that said: “Don’t bother us. We’re stressed.”

Susan Cannone and Starbucks enjoy a moment of togetherness at their home in Athens. (Amy Carter/UGA CVM)

Sanderson pulled out a male kitten who, in her expert opinion, didn’t look stressed at all. Cannone saw him, he saw her, “and that was it,” she recalled. “It was love at first sight.”

Curing an epidemic of loneliness

In May of 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General released a study that called loneliness and isolation an epidemic. Kerstin Emerson, clinical associate professor in the College of Public Health’s Institute of Gerontology, Health Policy & Management, and a co-investigator on the UGA 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,” she said. “We wanted to know if a cat fostering program could be one intervention that could help older adults who are experiencing loneliness.”

Sanderson said 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.

Don Scott, campus director of geriatrics and palliative care and associate professor of medicine at the Augusta University-University of Georgia Medical Partnership and a co-investigator on the study, said the UGA study adds to the growing body of research 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,” Scott said.

The feasibility study was funded by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI). Now that the pilot study has shown that the concept works, Sanderson said she’s hopeful a broader study will be funded and approved in the future.

Volunteers 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 the 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.

Scott said that an attachment to a pet appears to mediate the relationship between loneliness and general health for older women. 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.

“So, pet ownership must be carefully considered in the context of an older adult’s health status, both for the welfare of the human and the animal,” Scott said.

“I couldn’t stand coming home to nothing except the house. To have somebody that you know is waiting for you and is happy to see you just makes all the difference.”

-Susan Cannone

Cats are more like dogs than you think

By all appearances, Frankie – aka, Mama’s best baby, sweetheart, darling, angel – is a perfect match for Marion Newburn. He, too, was selected for his human by Sanderson, this time due to the Covid lockdown. Newburn was not able to leave home and choose a cat at the shelter, so Sanderson asked for her preference – Newburn wanted a male tabby – and went to work.

Marion Newburn and Frankie, the cat she adopted through a pilot study of the UGA CVM. (Amy Carter/UGA CVM)

“There are cats you know will be affectionate and some maybe not and he would let me do the roly polys with him in his crate and I knew he would be affectionate,” she said.

Newburn renamed the cat Frankie after her second husband, Frank Collins.

Cats are strategic lovers at best, cozying up to their humans when food or attention are needed – by them. As a rule, they aren’t obedient, but Frankie eagerly responds to Newburn’s call for “love ins” when she settles on the couch to read at night. He provides hours of entertainment, especially when he’s had a hit of catnip. He once unraveled a ski hat Newburn was knitting for her primary care doctor, so she learned to hide the hobby she’s practiced since her 20s for the sake of his health.

“He won’t let me brush him. He gets mean. Fortunately he’s not a shedder,” Newburn said. Like Starbucks, he earns his keep by ridding the house of bugs.

Cannone bought a book of 1,200 cat names when she adopted Starbucks but opted for that name owing to the cat’s coloring and energy level, both of which remind her of a Starbucks caramel latte drink. He prefers to be called Beauty Boy, Cannone’s nickname for him.

“I can hardly wait to get home,” Cannone said of life since adopting Starbucks/Beauty Boy. If he’s not in the room when she walks in, he comes running as soon as he hears her.

-Lauren Baggett, director of communications for the University of Georgia College of Public Health, contributed to this story.