Healthy Aging: Human Companionship Through Fostering Felines | HABRI

Healthy Aging: Human Companionship Through Fostering Felines

Principal Investigator

Sherry Sanderson


Much suffering among older people living alone is the result of boredom, feelings of helplessness and loneliness. Moreover, many older adults prefer to age in place. Animal companionship is a known antidote to loneliness, however, there are often real and perceived barriers older adults have that result in their reluctance to adopt a pet. By developing a program where older adults are initially participating in a feline fostering program, some of these perceived barriers may be overcome, and in turn, they may be willing to adopt their foster cats. Pet fostering in and of itself may serve as an innovative and practical intervention to improve mental and emotional health in older adults, enabling them to remain in their homes for longer time periods. In addition, fostering cats provides a much needed service to the community as some shelters strive to become low kill/no kill shelters and are often in need of foster homes as a way to bridge the time from intake to adoption into a permanent home.


  1. Assess the impact of feline companionship on mental and emotional health in older adults.
  2. Evaluate the impact of feline fostering on older adults’ interest in and commitment to adopting a shelter cat.
  3. Evaluate the feline fostering program as a sustainable partnership between the university and community partners.


This study will examine the impact of pet companionship on mental and emotional health in older adults living alone. 34 pairs of cats and seniors will then be interviewed and assessed throughout the study to determine whether having a pet in the house leads to changes in their emotional well-being. Assessments include, loneliness, emotional well-being, and purpose of life scales as well as measures of attachment to, and comfort from, the foster cat. Foster parents will be interviewed at four time points during the study:

  1. baseline
  2. one month into fostering
  3. four months into fostering
  4. one-year into fostering or upon the adoption or return of the foster cat.

The older adults fostering the cat have the option to adopt and will be reassured that if they choose to adopt if at any time they are no longer able to care for their cat, the cat can be returned to the original organization to find a new home.


Twenty-three of 29 (79.3%) participants remained in the study for at least 4 months, and a majority (95.7%) adopted their cat. Estimated mean differences in marginal means (adjusted for physical health) showed a significant improvement in loneliness from baseline to 4 months (p =0.029). A similar 4-month improvement that approached statistical significance (adjusted p = 0.079) was observed for mental health. No other scales showed statistically significant changes across time.

Fostering a shelter cat with the option for adoption may be an effective solution for alleviating loneliness and improving mental health in older adults. Interest in adopting foster cats was high when perceived barriers to adoption were removed.

Expected Results

Findings are expected to demonstrate improvements in mental and behavioral health in foster parents including reduction in loneliness and depression, and that attachment to the companion animal will increase the duration of fostering or lead to adoption of the foster cat. If this study shows companionship from cats improves both emotional and mental health in older people, this could result in a larger scale program as a way to reduce health care costs and increase time interval of independent living for older people. In addition, if initiating a foster program while simultaneously removing perceived barriers older people have for not wanting to adopt a pet results in increases in older adults adopting cats, this will increase the number of older adults willing to adopt a cat, and this program could result in more older adults aging in place by benefitting from the human-animal bond.


Citation: Sanderson, S. L., Emerson, K. G., Scott, D. W., Vidrine, M., Hartzell, D. L., & Keys, D. A. (2023). The Impact of Cat Fostering on Older Adult Well-Being and Loneliness: A Feasibility Study. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, gbad140.