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Itty Bitty the Kitty is more entertaining than TV.

“That’s my sugar. Ooh, he’s a show!” said his owner, Diane, as the energetic tabby pounced on a new toy.

That toy, a colorful length of braided fleece, was delivered by Jay Wilcox, a volunteer for Ani-Meals on Wheels. Wilcox also brought a month’s worth of donated provisions — a bag of dry chow, six cans of seafood-flavored cat food and the new amusement — to the third-floor apartment, greeting Diane by name and asking, “How’s your baby?”

The 70-year-old retired secretary (who asked that only her first name be used) lives in a rent-assisted building for older adults. As a Meals on Wheels client, she regularly receives healthy meals. Now her in-house entertainment and adored companion, Itty Bitty, does, too.

“When I heard about this, my first reaction was, ‘You’re kidding me! We need to be feeding people, not pets,’ ” confessed Wilcox, a retired dentist.

After making a few Ani-Meals deliveries, he did an about-face.

“I’ve seen how these lovable little fuzzballs touch the heart and soul of a person,” he said. “In some cases, that animal is all they’ve got in the world.”

Every month, Ani-Meals volunteers pack 1,200 pounds of pet food and deliver it to 170 animals, mostly cats, that live with Meals on Wheels clients served by Community Emergency Service (CES) in south Minneapolis.

The program is part of an effort to recognize the role that companion animals play in the health and well-being of the people Meals on Wheels serves.

“Pets are really important for our clients,” said Melanie LaPointe, volunteer coordinator at CES. “They may not have much family or get out much. Their cat or their dog is their family.”

Meals on Wheels has long been credited with helping low-income seniors and people with disabilities retain their independence by providing them with nutritious food. The regular lunchtime drop-offs by friendly volunteers also offer a connection for homebound clients.

A few years ago, Meals on Wheels America (the national organization that supports the thousands of community-based programs) discovered that many of its clients shared their limited food with their pets.

“If you don’t have a lot of food, you need it yourself,” said LaPointe. Sharing “is not healthy for the people and not healthy for the pets.”

In 2016, the national organization offered grants to local Meals on Wheels programs to establish Ani-Meals on Wheels. In Minneapolis, CES relies on grants and individual donations of pet food, kitty litter and cash. Volunteers sort, pack and deliver the pet supplies.

Kim Flatgard is a regular at the historic church where CES is located. For more than two years, the Bloomington woman and her husband have sorted and packed donations for Ani-Meals.

“There’s a feeling of satisfaction coming here and knowing what we’re giving to other animal lovers,” she said.

A cure for loneliness

It’s not just seniors living on limited incomes who suffer the very real effects of loneliness: It’s now considered an epidemic among older people.

A growing body of research has confirmed the health threats associated with social isolation. A 2017 national Health and Retirement Study by the National Institute on Aging identified loneliness as a factor that contributes to an elevated risk of heart attacks, strokes, depression and even early death.

A study by the AARP Public Policy Institute linked feeling alone to higher health care costs, calculating that it creates an estimated $6.7 billion in additional Medicare spending every year.

“Older adults can become lonely to the point that they seek medical visits when they are not necessary,” said LaNita Knoke, a health care strategist with Home Instead Senior Care. “They’re looking for social interaction.”

Pet ownership can curb that loneliness. It’s been credited with helping people make essential connections and providing the companionship that contributes to physical and mental health.

“Human-to-human relationships are complicated and humans can let us down,” said Athena Diesch-Chham, veterinary social worker in the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota. “An animal gives the unconditional love that feeds the soul.”

Diesch-Chham salutes the Ani-Meals on Wheels program for recognizing that supporting pets is a way of supporting their owners.

“Our older people have experienced major losses — spouses, siblings, the loss of independence,” she said. “A bond with an animal gives purpose, a reason to get up and face the day. That pet needs them.”

That’s true for Diane, who grew up on a farm, which she calls “the best life ever.” As a girl, she helped her father with pigs, cows, chickens, a dog and, of course, a barnful of cats.

Now, she keeps track of Itty Bitty as he roams her apartment, sometimes observing her from the top of her refrigerator.

“He sleeps in bed with me under my chin,” she said. “He keeps me company. He keeps me from getting too lonesome.”

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.