How Robotic Pets Are Helping Older Adults Facing Dementia and Isolation

old man petting a cat

Phynart Studio / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Over six million people in the United States have dementia.
  • A new study looked at the impact of robotic pet cats on elderly dementia patients.
  • Over 12 interactions, patients' moods improved.

Dementia is increasingly prevalent with an estimated 55 million people worldwide experiencing the condition. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, over six million people aged 65 and older in the United States have Alzheimer's disease—the most common cause of dementia—a number that researchers expect to more than double to almost 13 million by 2050.

Currently, dementia has no cure, and treatment focuses on managing potential symptoms such as difficulty communicating, agitation, depression, and confusion. While coping mechanisms are varied, one unexpected option comes in a surprising form: robotic pets.

The Promise of a Furry Robotic Companion

A recent study from Issues In Mental Health Nursing looked at the impact of providing mild to moderate dementia patients with interactive robotic pet cats. Researchers gave 12 adult day care patients their own cat, which each patient named. Interactions with the cats occurred in groups four times a week for a total of 12 sessions.

All participants’ moods improved, and over half of people had a slight to moderate upswing in attention, language, and registration. “The robotic pet brings comfort, companionship and lowers stress while helping the individual relax and feel calm. While preventing loneliness, it can also reduce depression and improve socialization and communication abilities,” says Dr. Holly Schiff, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist at Jewish Family Services of Greenwich.

Sandra Peterson, DNP

Robots have a role as companions to humans, especially in situations like those we have experienced within the pandemic.

— Sandra Peterson, DNP

“Robots have a role as companions to humans, especially in situations like those we have experienced within the pandemic,” says Dr. Sandra Peterson, DNP, a senior health and wellness consultant for Pegasus Senior Living. “For elderly who are isolated and alone, the robot can be of great comfort in the absence of interactions with humans.” 

Peterson authored a similar study in 2016 which found that a robotic baby seal pet decreased elderly dementia patients’ anxiety, stress, and use of psychoactive and pain medications. During the pandemic, she brought a disinfected robotic seal to interact with quarantining residents. “The robot offered a safe interaction for the residents and allowed them to hug and interact in a way that, during that time, we could not as humans,” she says. “Even those with fairly significant cognitive impairment interacted—some quietly holding the device and crying or talking to the robot about what they were feeling.” Peterson has found that few people choose not to interact with the robotic pet throughout these visits.

Robotic Pets Have Unique Benefits

While the idea of replacing a living pet with a robotic one may feel a bit sterile, there are wide-ranging advantages.

For starters, real pets may not be welcome at nursing homes or other care centers. “It can also be difficult for people with dementia to care for pets. They may forget things like food, water, and cleaning a litter box, or they don’t have the mobility. They might not be able to get a sick or injured animal to a vet,” says ​​Dr. Aimee Daramus, clinical psychologist and author of Understanding Bipolar Disorder, adding that people also won’t have to deal with the mental fallout of a pet dying.

Schiff adds that another benefit of robotic pets comes from increased ease with technology—which is more commonly used in other areas of health than ever before.

Researchers haven’t identified any adverse effects of robotic pet companions for people with dementia. However, Schiff cautions that things may get challenging if a person believes the animal is real and becomes stressed about caring for it.

Holly Schiff, PsyD

The robotic pet brings comfort, companionship and lowers stress while helping the individual relax and feel calm. While preventing loneliness, it can also reduce depression and improve socialization and communication abilities.

— Holly Schiff, PsyD

People with other chronic conditions, such as autism spectrum disorder, may also benefit from robotic pets. In a 2019 study, researchers compared the impact of living dogs to robotic ones for children and adults. In adults, there was no difference between the two in the promotion of social communication behavior.

Similar to people with dementia, many individuals may not have access to or the ability to look after a pet. As Daramus explains, “animal therapy for people with developmental disabilities or chronic mental illness is well established, but you have some of the same problems of making sure that the animal is well-cared for, and figuring out what to do if someone lives in a home where pets aren’t allowed.” Robotic pets may have similar effects without the same obstacles as living ones. However, further studies are needed to determine the impact.

What This Means For You

Further research is needed to see if there are long-term benefits of robotic pets for dementia patients. If someone in your life has dementia, consider getting a robotic pet for them or speaking with your doctor about the option.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. World Health Organization. Dementia.

  2. Alzheimer's Association. 2021 Alzheimer's disease facts and figures.

  3. Perneczky R. Dementia treatment versus preventionDialogues Clin Neurosci. 2019;21(1):43-51. doi:10.31887/DCNS.2019.21.1/rperneczky

  4. LaRose BS, Wiese LK, de Los Ángeles Ortega Hernández M. Improving behavioral and psychological symptoms and cognitive status of participants with dementia through the use of therapeutic interactive pets [published online ahead of print, 2021 Oct 13]Issues Ment Health Nurs. 2021;1-14. doi:10.1080/01612840.2021.1979142

  5. Petersen S, Houston S, Qin H, Tague C, Studley J. The utilization of robotic pets in Dementia Care. JAD. 2016;55(2):569-574. doi:10.3233/jad-160703

  6. Silva K, Lima M, Santos-Magalhães A, Fafiães C, de Sousa L. Living and robotic dogs as elicitors of social communication behavior and regulated emotional responding in individuals with autism and severe language delay: A preliminary comparative study. Anthrozoös. 2019;32(1):23-33. doi:10.1080/08927936.2019.1550278