Robotic pets can bring comfort and joy

Robotic pets are becoming a more and more common sight in care homes across the country as evidence mounts that these furry companions really do have the capacity to improve the well-being of people living with dementia. 

Research studies at 3 separate universities in the UK have produced encouraging results with the robotic pets being proven to reduce stress and anxiety, promote social interaction, facilitate emotional expression, and improve both mood and speech fluency.

Researchers at Wrexham Glendwr University have been trialling the use of ‘robocats’.

Designed to bring comfort and companionship, the robocats have realistic fur and make pet-like sounds. They contain sensors that mean they respond to petting and hugs with familiar pet-like actions such as purring and rolling over.

And unlike the real things which can have a tendency to wander off, become bad tempered, or dig their claws into you when you least expect it, the robocats are always ready for a cuddle.

Dr Joanne Pike, a senior lecturer in Nursing at the University says,  
“We know that pets can have a big impact on therapy and a positive effect on the health and wellbeing of an individual. These robotic companion pets are not a substitute but they are great company, particularly for someone elderly or living with dementia.”

Unlike real pets, the robotic companions don’t need feeding or exercising,  are always available, and don’t need supervising!

​Dr Pike’s Mother, who was living with Alzheimer’s disease, had one of the cats to look after and it proved a source of comfort. “Towards her later days, even if she didn’t talk to us she would be talking to the cat and stroking it. Mum felt comfort in that, it made her come alive.”

Researchers at the University of Brighton, meanwhile have been testing a furry robotic seal pup, called PARO.

PARO, which was invented in Japan, has built-in sensors and artificial intelligence that allows the seals to “learn” and respond to the name given to them by patients. They can also react to being stroked and spoken to by wriggling, turning to the patient, opening their big eyes and squeaking.

Researchers found that the impact of the robotic seals was significant with many potential uses.

PARO was able to soothe some patients, helping to reduce agitation and aggression. The seals also promoted social interaction, encouraging patients to reminisce about pets they had in the past, and show love and affection.

“The most important aspect is the improvement PARO makes to a patient’s quality of life” explains lead researcher Dr Penny Dobbs.

Researchers from the University of Exeter assessed 900 care home residents across 19 studies, observing the potential of robopets to increase social interaction between residents, family members and care home staff. 

5 different robopets were used in the research –  Necoro and Justocat (cats), Aibo (a dog), Cuddler (a bear) and Paro (a baby seal) 

Lead author Dr Rebecca Abbott, from the University of Exeter Medical School, said: “Although not every care home resident may choose to interact with robopets, for those who do, they appear to offer many benefits. Some of these are around stimulating conversations or triggering memories of their own pets or past experiences, and there is also the comfort of touching or interacting with the robopet itself. The joy of having something to care for was a strong finding across many of the studies.”

The robots offered a good alternative to having live animals visit the care home, which isn’t always possible, co-author Dr Noreen Orr explains..

“Of course robopets are no substitute for human interaction, but our research shows that for those who choose to engage with them, they can have a range of benefits. A new wave of more affordable robopets may make them more accessible.”