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Paws and Effect: Studies Show Benefits of Robotic Pets for Loved Ones With Dementia, Loneliness

Animatronic companions provide comfort, ease stress and agitation

spinner image an older hand strokes the fur of a robotic cat that is placed in a cat bed
Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images

The moment Anne* held her new dog, she smiled. The reaction, for family members, was a happy, startling change. For months, as Anne’s dementia had deepened, she had grown more distant. She slept most of the day and resisted getting dressed.

As her husband and caregiver, Dave*, grew increasingly desperate, a friend suggested that he give Anne a dog, though not just any four-legged companion. Anne, a lifelong dog lover, received a robotic pet. The furry animatronic pooch acts like a normal canine — it wags its tail, barks, turns its head in response to voices — but without the need for vet bills, long walks or, you know, picking up poop.

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For Dave, the benefits were clear as soon as he flipped the “on” switch.

“He called and said, ‘Anne is thrilled with this,’ ” says Mary Johnson, a volunteer with Capital Caring Health, a Washington, D.C.-area hospice and palliative care organization. “She sat up in bed, her eyes lit up, she started talking to the dog — she carries it around with her now and won’t put it down.”

Robotic pets provide comfort and care

Johnson recommended the dog to Michigan-based Dave based on her experiences with Capital Caring. Since 2021, Capital Caring has provided 2,500 free robotic dogs, birds and cats to patients, veterans and community members dealing not only with dementia but conditions such as depression, isolation and loneliness. The Ambrosio Guillen Texas State Veterans Home received a donation of six robotic pets from Capital Caring — two dogs, two cats and two birds — for the residents to enjoy in a group setting or one-on-one visits in the residents’ rooms.

Susan Culp, the Veterans Land Board on-site representative at the veterans home, says the residents react with big smiles whenever they get the chance to interact with the pets. “The realistic barks, purrs/meows, chirps and movement provide them with visual and sensory stimulation,” she says.

Resident Billie Tiller, who served in the Army for 20 years, has an “intense relationship” with the robotic dogs. Before coming to the facility, Tiller slept with his three Chihuahuas every night after his wife died, a friend reported. That love has been transferred to the furry “pets.”

“Not only does [Tiller] enjoy their animation and movement,” Culp notes, “but he also enjoys keeping them well-groomed, which is his top priority.”

Other organizations have found comparable success. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) began using robotic pets during the COVID-19 pandemic. In North Carolina, robotic pets at the Salisbury VA Community Living Center “have brought comfort, connection and therapeutic benefits to veterans with memory loss, dementia and depression,” the VA reported in 2022. “Patients tend to calm down when they have someone or something to nurture.”

Numerous studies support the benefits. The University of Plymouth conducted an eight-month study before and during the COVID pandemic at eight care facilities in Cornwall, England, and released the findings in September 2022: Residents with mechanical pets showed “decreased neuropsychiatric symptoms,” including delusions and depression, compared with those who didn’t have robotic animals.

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A 2022 study published in the Journal of Holistic Nursing observed similar results. In a six-week study involving 18 men and women with dementia in a residential care facility in the Northeastern U.S., it was reported that loneliness was “significantly reduced” and there was a “significant improvement” in depression after participants interacted with the robotic cats and dogs.  

Companion animals might even provide mental stimulation. In a 2021 study from Florida Atlantic University, dementia patients with robotic cats showed improved moods — several caregivers noted that their loved ones often slept with the cats — and more than 50 percent showed slight to moderate improvement in areas such as attention and language (researchers found that participants frequently talked to their pets). Mechanical animals can also help residents engage in reminiscence therapy — which involves using prompts such as photos and music to stir memories and conversation — by evoking recollections of their childhood pets, a report from the VA states. 

spinner image two residents of a texas state veterans home iris pierce holding a robotic dog on her lap and gerardo soleto cuddling a robotic cat
Although she is nonverbal, resident Iris Pierce sings and hums to the animatronic dog; Veteran Gerardo Sotelo loves holding the robotic animals because “they are so soft and even move around just like a real animal.”
Courtesy Ambrosio Guillen Texas State Veterans Home

Thinking about buying a robotic pet for a loved one? A company called Ageless Innovation manufactures the companion animals used by Capital Caring and other organizations. You can expect to pay $100-$140 for a dog, $125-$140 for a cat and around $47 for a bird on major retail sites. Similar products include MetaCat ($189), a robotic cat that makes realistic motions and sounds, and Perfect Petzzz ($40), synthetically furred cats and dogs that “breathe” with the aid of a battery.

Another option: Contact your state or county agency on aging — some distribute the animals for free to residents. In Washington, for example, senior services agencies throughout the state have distributed more than 700 robotic dogs and cats to older people dealing with dementia or loneliness. The New York State Office for the Aging distributed about 4,000 animatronic pets during the pandemic; it plans to provide an additional 17,000 to older residents through local agencies in the coming years.

Although the pets can help ease loneliness and anxiety, they are not a four-legged panacea, particularly for those with dementia, warns Monica Moreno, senior director of care and support at the Alzheimer’s Association. Some people may respond positively to the animals, some won’t. To improve the odds of success, it helps to understand an individual’s background.

“It's about connecting with the person where they’re at, trying to see the world through their eyes and understanding what they are feeling, and then identifying the best approach to provide comfort,” Moreno says. “That intervention may be a robotic pet. But you have to know the person and their history and their likes and dislikes.” An example: If someone had a bad experience with a dog when they were young or they’ve had a lifelong fear of animals, giving them a robotic dog could backfire.

“Instead of calming them and providing them with comfort, it may cause them to become more anxious and more upset,” Moreno says. Conversely, some dementia patients may become too attached to their robotic Fido, and if it gets lost, it may cause anxiety.

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spinner image veterans home residents billie pierce and enrique porras interacting with the robotic pets there
Veterans Billie Tiller (left) and Enrique Porras groom and snuggle a pet dog at the Ambrosio Guillen Texas State Veterans Home.
Courtesy Ambrosio Guillen Texas State Veterans Home

A family connection

If there’s a good fit between patient and pet, robotic animals can provide comfort and companionship and help reduce anxiety, Moreno says. And the joy the animal provides can extend to families and even staff at a care facility.

That was the experience of Capital Caring’s Mary Johnson and her friend Sally*. Sally’s husband, Alan, received a dog when he was very ill. Mary and Sally recently reminisced about the emotional connection he formed with his robotic pet.

“We put it on the bed, and Alan smiled, and the dog barked, and he seemed to like it right away,” Mary says. “The dog always stayed in the room, usually in the bed.”

“It was fun to see him over the next couple of days and even weeks,” Sally says. “He knew that if he lifted up an ear, the dog would respond in a certain way. They had many sweet conversations.”

Despite the sadness, the dog inspired happiness when people entered Alan’s room.

“Sally would be sitting on the bed, and sometimes Al was asleep, sometimes he was awake, but with the dog there, people would start to smile and talk to the dog,” Mary remembers. “Sometimes staff members would walk in and talk to him. This was a room where Al was slowly transitioning, but there was happiness there because of the dog.”

After he died, Sally’s daughter asked if she could keep the dog. “She said, ‘I have so many happy memories of Dad holding it,’ ” Sally recalls. The dog now lives in North Carolina with Sally and Alan’s daughter and three grandkids. It’s part of the family.

*Last names have been withheld for privacy.

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