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Can Robot Pets Help With Depression?


In the age of COVID-19 and mandated social distancing, the world has seen the rise of another problem: loneliness and depression. Even as early as 2017, former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has called loneliness an epidemic among Americans. 

One of the most popular solutions is administering robot pet therapy, especially in nursing homes and assisted living centers. 

Animatronic therapy has been around long before the pandemic. Its roots can be traced back to traditional pet therapy, which has since developed into high-technology robot pets for those who are unable to physically or mentally take care of a live animal but still require their emotional support.

Pet ownership can be a great source of joy. In fact, animal-assisted therapy in pre-Covid times has been incredibly popular among assisted living facilities and hospitals, as they bring entertainment and emotional support to patients going through difficult times.

What are the Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Companion pets can help patients reduce blood pressure, improve cardiovascular health, and release happy chemicals from the brain. Essentially, they provided comfort and an emotional support system for those who might be separated from family members.

Animal-assisted therapy isn’t just for elderly people, either. It’s known to be helpful for chemotherapy patients, people with Alzheimer’s disease or those who require memory care, nursing home residents, veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, physical therapy patients, and people with mental disorders. 

Pet therapy is also a lot more than just taking care of a pet — animal therapy treatment groups undergo a structured program to aid in their recovery. In a less structured environment, having pets in medical centers also benefits the staff and provides a link to the outside world.

But as any pet owner can attest to, it’s not all smiles. Pets are still living beings that are, while incredibly loving, imperfect. They require proper care and that often includes round the clock maintenance and sometimes hospital visits.

What are Robotic Animals Used For?

Enter: robot pets. Made popular in recent years, a robotic pet serves as a companion pet much like a real animal does, only without the added responsibility. 

Companion robots serve plenty of the same benefits as real companion pets. They help provide socialization and comfort to those with physical and mental disabilities, especially for aging adults in assisted living facilities who may experience social isolation. Studies show that these pets have been beneficial in improving the quality of life for those who suffer from debilitating illnesses.

Ageless Innovation, the company behind the beloved Joy for All Companion Pets, has developed robotic pets specifically for older adults. These robotic dogs and cats have built-in sensors for human interaction. The tactile sensors make the each robotic cat and robotic dog all the more realistic: they can bark, meow, respond to human voice, and move their paws. Some even appear to have a heartbeat.

According to Ted Fischer, CEO of Ageless Innovation, their robotic pets were “developed with extensive input from older adults,” and made “to look, sound, and feel just like real puppies — without the responsibilities of pet ownership.” 

This is why you’ll find plenty of their companion pet robots in care facilities for senior citizens. Fischer adds, “older adults want realism, interactive two-way companionship, and pets.” 

Their previous research with older adults has led them to design the perfect companion pet, as close to the real thing as possible. Apparently, it’s all in the interactive abilities: older adults are able to form bonds with these robotic pets because of their responsiveness. The Joy for All robotic pets move, sound, and interact with their owners, much like real pets. 

What are Therapy Robots?

Certainly, these pets aren’t the first time therapy robots have been used in assisted living facilities. Social robots have been used in the past to help autistic children develop social skills. In stroke patients, therapy robots were used to aid in physical activity rehabilitation.

Robotic Pet Ownership And Mental Health Benefits

Seeing the life-changing potential of pet ownership, many studies have been conducted with different treatment groups and a sample size composed of older adults. 

Alacare Home Health & Hospice, a care facility for senior citizens and dementia patients, has conducted a pilot study of their own — and to overwhelmingly positive results.

In the Companion Pet Pilot Study, patients who suffer from severe dementia and social isolation were given their own Joy for All robot animals, with clinical data collected before, during, and after being given their pets as part of outcome measures.

Indeed, a robotic pet can be helpful in reducing mental and behavioral problems. Study participants were shown to have reduced feelings of anxiety, better communication skills, and improved quality of life, according to family members and caretakers.

According to James Beard, president of the Alacare Home & Health Hospice, “Patients who were not communicating began interacting with their pet, and they were willing to speak to others; it has been amazing.”

One other benefit from the data collection is a decreased medication use. In one older adult suffering from dementia, the need for agitation and anxiety medication has decreased since the introduction of her Joy for All Companion pet. The calming presence of this pet has also resulted in better memory for a patient with Alzheimer’s.

Other research shows similar benefits. Greg Olsen, director of the New York State Office for the Aging, launched a 12-county pilot program in 2018 dedicated to observing the potential health benefits of a robotic companion among older adults. 

As per Olsen, the NYSOFA saw that “70% of pet adoptees indicated a reduction or significant reduction in feeling isolated after one year.” The emotional response from these patients has been overwhelming, too. Many “cry when they receive them — they love them like a real pet — and their families and caregivers have said they see a huge difference in their loved one’s mood.”

How Robotic Pets Help People with Dementia

The Florida Department of Elder Affairs began providing robotic dogs to older adults in facilities for Alzheimer’s and dementia living. Petting a dog or a cat has been shown to have positive effects for patients in memory care and dementia care.

According to Wired, the program made an initial purchase of 375 robotic dogs, but the feedback from the caretakers and other residents was so positive that the agency had to increase their order. A total of 1,800 robot companion pets were purchased just to keep up with the needs of the treatment group.

Since their burgeoning popularity, all sorts of robotic companion pets have been designed, including robotic cats, dinosaurs, and in one case, a robotic baby harp seal. 

A study in Australia sought to establish the benefits of different kinds of robotic companion pets and their effects on people with dementia. Each treatment group was given its own robotic animal while the control group was given usual care. However, the results of the trial were not yet stated in the open access article.

Social Distancing and Pet Therapy

For people who are at high risk of isolation, depression, and physical health problems, especially seniors who have developed Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, having a low-maintenance companion has helped them become calmer and happier. Not only that, but these pets have been beneficial to memory care and other forms of mental stimulation.

In the age of COVID-19 where social distancing is required, feelings of loneliness and depression have been all the more common. One approach to combat this is providing the company of robotic pets. Weekly sessions with Paro, the interactive baby seal, have been shown to significantly decrease feelings of loneliness, according to the University of Cambridge’s systematic review.

However, there are still challenges to be addressed. In the case of a patient from the Alacare facility, her initially positive response turned into feelings of worry about being able to provide for her pet, as she believed it was a real animal. Ethicists have also discussed the possible negative effects of being dependent on therapy robots for one’s well-being.

Overall, individuals who were provided these robot friends have shown improvement in quality of life and well-being as well as reduced feelings of agitation and loneliness. It’s safe to say that robotic pets are a unique innovation in health sciences that can benefit our vulnerable loved ones who need it the most.

Sota Takahashi

Sota Takahashi is a Japanese-born electrical engineer. At the age of 18, he moved to Seattle and completed his Electrical Engineering degree at the University of Washington, Seattle. Being a fan of all things tech, he channels his geeky side through this website, and with his wife Linda, shares knowledge about robot pets and how they can be lifelong and advantageous companions for both children and the elderly.

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