You might think it was a typical therapy session at a long-term care facility. In a quiet room, a therapist sets down a pet carrier, brings out a cat, and sets it on a resident’s lap. As the resident gently strokes the cat’s fur, it purrs, and the therapist asks the resident questions about their childhood pets, accessing long-ago memories.
The resident’s enjoyment of the session and the benefit for their well-being is real. But the animal is not. It’s a robotic pet with synthetic fur and programmed movements and sounds. But researchers are finding that robotic pets can be useful in therapy, without some of the disadvantages and unpredictability of real animals.
In a paper published in the Canadian Journal of Recreation Therapy, U researcher Rhonda Nelson and graduate student Rebecca Westenskow BS’20 developed a protocol for using robotic pets with older adults with dementia. The protocol uses a low-cost robotic pet, establishes ideal session lengths, and identifies common participant responses to the pets to aid in future research.
All the participants of the study said they enjoyed the activity, with several responding that they liked it “very much.” The questions that spurred the most response related to personal reminiscences and directions for interacting with the pet.
Why does engaging with robotic pets provide such an enjoyable experience?
“People in long-term care facilities are in a position where everybody provides care to them,” Nelson says, “and I think it’s psychologically very comforting for people to feel like, even though they know that [the pet] is not live, they’re the person who’s giving love and compassion to something, and it’s responding.”
Robotic pets can get around many of the risks and drawbacks of live animals in long-term care settings. Many facilities don’t allow personal companion animals because of allergies, the potential for bites or scratches, and other reasons.