Pets don't have to be real to comfort people with dementia

Virtual pets offer a way to address symptoms like aggression naturally, without using pharmacological treatments.

Maija Kappler 3 minute read November 3, 2021
robot pets dementia

Pet therapy can be helpful for people with Alzheimer's disease — even if the pet is a robot. (Getty)

Anyone who’s hugged a dog or pet a cat during a time of high stress know how comforting a pet can be. A new study highlights just how helpful pets can be — even if they aren’t real.

Research from Florida Atlantic University found that virtual pets could improve mood and cognition in people with Alzheimer’s disease or similar dementias — a significant feat, since Alzheimer’s patients struggle with awareness and memory, and can lash out at loved ones because of the aggression and behavioural changes that often accompany the disease.

The study, which involved only people with mild or moderate dementia, found that participants scored higher on mood scales and cognition tests after visits with an cuddly, interactive robotic cat. There was a “slight to moderate” improvement in attention, calculation, language and registration, and a significant improvement in mood, which was measured using both the Observed Emotion Rating Scale and the Cornell Scale of Depression in Dementia.

The researchers and many of the patients’ caretakers reported that the “pet” cat was a comforting presence. Many of dementia patients — who were told their cat was a robot — were smiling, talking to and cuddling the cat, who would respond by meowing, blinking and looking around. Several of the participants slept with their cat, and one took her cat with her to the hospital. Researchers said one commonly expressed sentiment was “the cat is looking at me like someone who listens to me and loves me.”

“Our intervention was affordable, safe, and noninvasive.” said Bryanna Streit LaRose, the lead author of the study, which was published in Issues in Mental Health Nursing. “Since there is no cure for dementia, our project offers a way to address symptoms naturally and without the use of pharmacological treatments.”

Pet therapy has long been known to provide benefits to mood and quality of life, especially for seniors, who are more likely to experience loneliness. This study is encouraging in what it suggests about robotic pets: that they might provide similar benefits to real ones, without the responsibilities of feeding, walking and taking care of a real pet, which could difficult for someone in cognitive decline.

“Pets play an important companion role whatever your age,” Andrew Sixsmith, director of the Science and Technology for Aging Research Institute at Simon Fraser University told NBC News in 2019. “For some people with dementia, a real pet might not be feasible, so this might help.”

There are a number of robotic pets on the market — Aibo and Jennie are both dogs, though Aibo looks more like a robot and Jennie, equipped with “fur,” looks more real. There are also cats on the market, as well as Paro the seal and  (A 2017 study found that looked at dementia patients who spent time with robotic seal found that “treatment with the PARO robot decreased stress and anxiety.”) But these robots are expensive for the average family — they range from about USD $125 to $6,000, depending how realistic they are. The care of real pets, of course, can also be pricey.

A robotic pet obviously isn’t the only thing a person suffering from dementia needs, Monica Moreno of the Alzheimer’s Association made clear to NBC: it’s meant to supplement medical care and visits from loved ones. But for the families of people living with dementia, it’s helpful to know it’s an option.