Assisted Animal Therapy, or AAT, has played an important role in improving the quality of life for many people affected by both physical and mental disorders.(6) The impact of this non-pharmacological therapy has been especially evident on the elderly suffering from forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Several studies support the positive effects of patient interaction with companion animals, as well as interaction with robotic animals.(1,3,5,6,7)

Because dementia is a neurodegenerative syndrome, it causes a steady deterioration of cognitive functions, especially thinking, orientation, memory, and communication. Other symptoms, such as behavioral disorders and difficulties in walking and sleeping, typically accompany the diminishing cognitive abilities.(5) Scientists are seeking alternative medical treatments that will slow both the psychological and physiological decline of dementia patients, while helping maintain their quality of life and reducing the overall economic burden felt by the patients and their caregivers. Favorable results from AAT have been observed, especially among the elderly.(6

Most AAT programs use dogs, cats, rabbits, and horses as companion animals. Studies have proven that petting an animal has a calming effect on a person’s heart rate and blood pressure, regardless of whether dementia is present.(2,5)  Petting and cuddling an animal releases endorphins and other hormones such as oxytocin, prolactin, and dopamine.(5) There is also evidence that interaction with pets increases socialization and decreases disruptive behaviors in Alzheimer’s patients.(3) And it isn’t only warm, furry mammals that produce favorable results. Other studies have found that birds and aquariums filled with fish appear to diminish episodes of anxiety, verbal aggression, and hyperactivity reported in many dementia patients.(1,2,3).

Although numerous positive effects of AAT have been reported and substantiated, there are some limitations to this type of therapy. Use of live animals with Alzheimer’s patients can present issues because of the constant need for supervision and/or the need to provide care for the animals.(2) Many senior-healthcare facilities still do not accept animals due to concerns of allergies, infections, biting, scratching, and sometimes even fear of the patient toward the animal.(7) Enter PARO, the robotic pet.

Researchers in Japan designed PARO (short for “personal robot” in Japanese) to provide an alternative to traditional animal therapy. PARO produces many of the same positive effects of AAT without the drawbacks of living animals. The robotic pet was designed to look like a baby harp seal which isn’t a familiar animal to most people and thereby produces no preconceptions or expectations.(7)  Because of the dual processors controlling behavior and voice recognition, PARO imitates animal behavior such as cooing, purring, and batting its eyelashes. The FDA-approved device responds to light, sound, temperature, and touch. Possessing artificial intelligence capacity, each PARO pet eventually develops its own personality and can express emotions such as surprise and happiness. (4,7)

Research conducted at the University of Texas at Tyler in 2017 found that interaction with the PARO seal provided an alternative therapy for controlling the symptoms of anxiety and depression in patients with dementia. The treatment group interacting with PARO showed an improvement in oxygen saturation and pulse rate. Additionally, the use of pain medications in this treatment group was significantly decreased.(7)

Authors of the study suggest future research with robotic pets using biofeedback technology to evaluate immediate physiological and psychological impact.(7) Patients suffering from dementia and their caregivers aren’t the only ones who stand to gain from this technology. Monitoring real-time effects of AAT, using either live animals or robotic pets, could lead to increased positive perception of quality of life, as well as a reduction in medications, across a variety of patient populations.

Works Cited

  1. Colombo, G., Dello Buono, M., et al (2005). Pet therapy and institutionalized elderly: A study on 144 cognitively unimpaired subjects. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 42.
  2. Edwards, N., Beck, A. (2002). Animal-Assisted Therapy and Nutrition in Alzheimer’s Disease. Western Journal of Nursing Research, 24(6).
  3. Fritz, C., Farver, T., et al (1995) Association with Companion Animals and the Expression of Noncognitive symptoms in Alzheimer’s Patients. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 183(7).
  4. Johnston, A. (2014). Robotic seals comfort dementia patients but raise ethical concerns.
  5. Klimova, Blanka, Toman, J. (2019). Effectiveness of the dog therapy for patients with dementia – a systematic review. BMC Psychiatry 19(276).
  6. Moretti, F, DeRonchi, D., et al. (2010). Pet therapy in elderly patients with mental illness. Psychogeriatrics, 11.
  7. Petersen, S., Houston, S. et al. (2017). The Utilization of Robotic Pets in Dementia Care. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 55(2).