Robotic cats and dogs can be very beneficial to people unable to have a live pet
Fluffy, soft, and well, adorable, our pets — especially dogs and cats — are companion animals for a reason. We enjoy their company, they’re fun to take care of, and they’re comforting to interact with. They make us feel less lonely and they force us to get out a bit more in the world.
So it’s no surprise that when it comes to our mental health, these animals bring us a whole host of physical and mental health benefits too.
“Close contact with pets can reduce anxiety and lower blood pressure,” explains Christine Henry, a licensed psychologist and nationally certified counselor in Pearland, Texas, who specializes in treating patients who’ve experienced trauma, pet loss, and grief.
“There have been studies that show that owning a pet can increase survival rates for cancer and cardiac disease [and] owning a pet is inversely related to depression.”
But pets also take work: you have to feed and care for them; change their litter boxes, clean their cages, or take them outside for walks and bathroom breaks. And as a result, they’re not always a good fit for everyone, including people who are older adults, chronically ill, or have dementia.
“If someone has mobility issues, they are unable to take a dog on a walk to go to the bathroom or clean out a litter box,” explains Henry. “If someone has memory issues they may also forget to feed the animal.”
And yet, these folks are among those who could benefit from pet companionship the most. Enter: robotic pets.
Well, in many ways they’re just what they sound like: They’re robots designed to look and act like popular pets, such as cats and dogs.
And while this idea might sound like a toy for kids, these realistic robotic pets, like Tombot or Joy for All companion pets are actually made for adults. They’re soft, interactive, and designed to help combat cognitive decline and loneliness.
A small 2021 study, for example, gave mild to moderate dementia patients a robotic cat four times a week for 12 sessions and found that these interactions improved all the patient’s moods. Not only that but in half the patients, there was a slight improvement in their ability to pay attention and talk.
A similar 2016 study found that a baby pet seal improved dementia patients’ mental health too, reducing their stress and anxiety levels, as well as their use of pain medications.
Henry says she’s heard of similar benefits from her patients who are caring for their older parents. “[They] reported how much having a robot pet lifted their loved one’s mood,” she says.
“One client spoke about her [older] mother going to the hospital and bringing her robotic pet with her. Not only did it help keep her calm during her hospital stay, but the staff also interacted with the robotic pet too.”
In other words, the robotic pet gave her a companion — and an excuse to interact and socialize a bit more with the staff.
But unlike a real pet, it won’t die if you forget to feed it — nor will it be an issue for people with pet allergies. It can also accompany you places other pets cannot, like the hospital.
For some people, the robotic pet won’t be as fun as a real pet, especially if you have the ability to care for a live animal in the way it needs and take it on walks. Interacting with a real animal — and the sense of responsibility that comes with that — might also really help people with other conditions too.
“An individual [experiencing] depression, for example, may benefit from a real pet to support them in exercising, and having daily tasks such as feeding the animal,” says Meghan Downey, a licensed clinical psychologist.
But for others, robotic pets may actually be better.
“For example,” Downey says, “an individual [living with] from dementia, for example, may benefit from a robotic pet more than a real pet as they wouldn’t be worried or burdened with the tasks of meal time, exercise, and cleaning up after the animal, or the responsibility of having to take it to vet appointments.”
Pets can be great for our mental health. If you’re someone who wishes you could cuddle with a waggy-tailed dog but would be challenged with the responsibility that comes with pet ownership, robotic pets might be an option. This is also true if you care for an older loved one or a loved one with dementia.