A robotic therapy seal.

Are Robotic Pets the Future of Animal Therapy?

Whether or not you’ve been infected with COVID-19, you’ve probably suffered symptoms of the pandemic. Social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders have, temporarily, made life a little lonelier for just about everyone. Many Americans have responded by purchasing or adopting pets. This sudden pet parenthood boom has been one of the pandemic’s few bright spots.

While shelter pets are finding new homes (and probably loving quarantine), therapy animals have had an unexpectedly lonely year. Nursing homes, hospitals, and other institutions that often host animal therapy programs have been forced shut to their doors. This has left many seniors experiencing an extra layer of isolation. They’re not only separated from their families, but forced to go without such an effective tool for fighting depression. Fortunately, many institutions are embracing a new form of animal-assisted therapy.

The Benefits of Animal Therapy

Pets have a special place in our hearts for a reason. Anyone who’s spent time with a friendly cat or dog can attest to their mood-lifting powers. Research suggests that pets aren’t just a placebo. In addition to fighting stress and alleviating anxiety, pets have been shown to help reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Animal therapy can prove especially helpful for seniors. Those suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease often show improved symptoms shortly after taking part in animal-assisted therapy programs. Companionship with animals is also the perfect antidote to the loneliness that often comes with life in an institution.

The Future of Animal Therapy?

COVID-19 has shut a door and opened a window. While traditional animal therapy has suffered, the makers of robotic pets have identified a new opportunity. Robo-pets, once an expensive novelty, have become an important part of therapy programs in many states. These dogs, cats, and seals, mimic the behaviors of the genuine article. They react to touch, offer affection, and even have their own heartbeats.

Since the pandemic started, organizations like the Alabama Department of Senior Services have taken a new interest in these unique creatures. They’re inspired by studies that have gone on throughout the last decade, which associate robot pets with increased socialization, improved mood, and reduced anxiety. A spokesperson from Florida’s Department of Elder Affairs commented, “companion pets are certainly enjoyed by families of those living with Alzhemier’s disease or any form of dementia . . . the pets have also become increasingly popular with many older residents who find comfort in them during this time of social distancing.” State agencies in New York and Pennsylvania are currently administering similar programs.

Can Robotic Pets Replace the Real Thing?

Researchers have also recently begun studying the efficacy of robotic pets outside of institutional settings. The results have been promising, to say the least. One notable study was co-sponsored by AARP and focused on seniors who self-described as “lonely.” Charlotte Yeh, one of the study’s co-authors, says, “there was improvement in their mental well-being, in sense of purpose and optimism.” Hasbro (through its Ageless Innovation brand) has taken part in these tests and continues to pursue additional partnerships.

Some experts, however, have objected to the concept of robotic pets, considering them unnecessarily deceptive. Sister Imelda Maurer, an elder care specialist from San Antonio, lamented the “ethical dishonesty” of robotic pet therapy. Such opinions remain relatively rare.

Robotics pets aren’t quite as great as the real thing, but they’re certainly cute and cuddly. Seniors and their loved ones will especially appreciate that they’re comparatively low-maintenance. While the hard work of pet parenthood is too much for many elderly animal lovers, just about anybody can care for a robotic companion. “Pets” like the popular Joy for All cat and dog don’t come cheap, but that up-front investment is nothing compared to the costs of caring for a living, breathing animal. What’s more, some insurance providers now cover the costs of robotic animal therapy. Count on these animals (and our relationship to them) to evolve at a remarkable speed over the next few years.