Robotic pets — machines designed to look and act like actual dogs, cats or other animals —might seem like something out of a science fiction movie. But thanks to artificial intelligence, robopets can mimic living pets and respond to human interaction. For example, a robotic cat might purr, or a robotic dog might wag its tail. As technology advances, robopets seem more like living animals.
Robopets aren’t just high-tech toys. Interacting with them can help people with memory problems or other conditions. Ganesh Gopalakrishna, MD, a psychiatrist at Banner Alzheimer’s Institute, said, “Robotic pets may be useful for anyone with behavioral or cognitive issues. Some studies have shown benefits even among healthy older people.”
We spoke to Dr. Gopalakrishna to learn more about the pros and cons of robotic pets.
What benefits do robotic pets offer?
Robotic pets can help with emotional, mental and social health. They can:
- Lessen loneliness by providing companionship
- Improve the quality of life
- Promote well-being
- Reduce agitation
- Reduce the need for medication
- Enhance mood
- Increase attention span and language abilities
- Improve communication
- Facilitate social interactions
People with memory problems or dementia often become agitated. “Interacting with robopets can help them calm down, and not feel agitated as frequently, according to multiple studies,” Dr. Gopalakrishna said.
How do robopets work?
There’s no defined protocol for how someone interacts with a robopet. A therapist might offer to put a robotic dog or cat on someone’s lap so they can cuddle and pet it. The robopet might move or make noises. The therapist might ask the person questions about the pets they had during their lifetime. Or they might ask if they want to brush the robopet since many people find comfort in nurturing or caregiving activities. Some people like to talk to the robopet.
Why choose a robopet instead of a real, live pet?
Animal-assisted therapy, or therapy that uses real pets, can bring plenty of benefits. But in places like nursing homes and senior health care settings, real animals may not be allowed because of the risk of allergies, infections, biting, scratching, or people tripping over them and falling.
Even in a private home, a person with memory problems may not be able to care for a real pet. They might forget to give it food or water, neglect potty trips or cleaning the litter box, over or under-medicate, or overlook veterinary care. A robotic pet can simply be stored when you’re not using it.
Plus, you might be concerned that a real pet might outlive the person with memory problems and need to find a new home. Or the pet might die, leaving the person sad and lonely.
What are the downsides of robotic pets?
There are a few things you should think about if you’re considering introducing robotic pet therapy to a loved one with memory issues:
- Some people find them creepy rather than comforting. “Some people with dementia may get distressed using these robots,” Dr. Gopalakrishna said.
- They can be expensive, ranging from a few hundred to thousands of dollars based on the features.
- There’s a chance that using robopets in settings like nursing homes could spread infection.
- Some people perceive the robopets as a responsibility they would rather not take on.
- People who don’t like animals probably won’t get comfort from a robopet.
- People with dementia may misunderstand the robopet’s actions. For example, they may perceive vocalization and movement as distress, and as a result, they may feel anxious.
- People with dementia may perceive that they are real animals, especially if caregivers refer to them that way.
The bottom line
Robotic pets — machines designed to look and act like real pets — can be comforting to people with dementia or other memory problems. These robopets can help people feel less lonely and agitated.
If you think your loved one might respond to a robopet, you might be able to purchase one yourself or arrange for sessions in a nursing home or senior care facility. If you would like to connect with a health care provider who can support people with memory problems and their caregivers, reach out to Banner Health.