More than sports, coffee, or even TikTok, Americans share one collective obsession: pets. In 2020 alone, about 68 percent of American households owned at least one pet. Pets bring so much joy to households that they have even been used as a form of emotional support and therapy for mood disorders.
But the recent use of robotic pets as a form of therapy has raised a few fundamental questions: Are robotic pets preferable to live pets? By interacting with inanimate objects, are we losing authentic experiences and connections? And if we do genuinely feel connected to a robotic pet, is this simply a product of confirmation bias? After all, life is subjective, and we often see what we expect or want.
From a technical standpoint, just interacting with animals—live or inanimate—has innumerable mental health benefits. Interacting with animals decreases levels of cortisol (a stress–causing hormone), which lowers blood pressure and increases cardiovascular health. Playing with pets also elevates levels of serotonin (a mood–stabilizing hormone) and dopamine (a pleasure–inducing hormone), which reduces symptoms of anxiety, depression, and loneliness. In a 2016 survey by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute, 74% of pet owners reported mental health improvements.
These mental health benefits are reflected in the physical health of pet owners. In the same HABRI survey, 54% of pet owners reported physical health improvements. A study conducted by the US National Institute of Health also found that pet owners visit doctors less often for simple conditions, experienced faster physical recovery rates from surgeries and serious illnesses, and have lower levels of triglycerides and cholesterol.
This isn’t surprising. Pets provide a direct source of companionship, catalyze friendship formation and social support networks, and some even increase physical activity. By serving as a source of routine, pets also instill a sense of stability, responsibility, and self–esteem in their owners.
Due to their immense mental health benefits, pet therapy (also known as animal–assisted therapy) has been recognized by the National Institute of Mental Health as a type of psychotherapy for treating mood disorders. A recent survey found that about 84 percent of post–traumatic stress disorder patients when paired with a service dog reported a significant reduction in symptoms, and 40 percent were able to decrease their medications.
Pet therapy is especially beneficial for individuals who experience depressive symptoms. In major depression, individuals witness a chemical imbalance in the brain, leading to feelings of hopelessness, self–doubt, and emptiness, among others. Pets offer a direct counter to this. Simply stroking or hugging a pet has immediate psychological benefits by inundating the brain with oxytocin (a stress–reducing hormone) and reducing the stress–related activity in the hypothalamus region (part of the brain’s emotional center). This boosts serotonin and dopamine levels, having the net effect of an increased sense of happiness and tranquility.
However, it’s not always practical to have live pets. Maintaining pets consumes time, space, money, and enormous amounts of energy. The demand for therapy dogs in particular has now outpaced the supply. And in a sort–of–post–pandemic world, the fabric of our everyday lives is coated in technological advancement and social distancing measures—meaning that robotic pets may just be the next replacement for live pets.
The advent of robotic pet therapy began with PARO, an interactive robot that looks like a baby harp seal. PARO was invented in Japan by research scientist Takanori Shibata, and is equipped with 32–bit processors, microphones, and tactile sensors. These gadgets enable PARO to recognize voices, track behaviors, make cute squeaks and whistles, have touch–sensitive whiskers, and wiggle.
Upon its first use, PARO was found to correlate with decreased stress and anxiety, and reduce the prescription of psychoactive medication in patients with dementia. They were also less prone to depressive symptoms like loneliness and hopelessness.
The success of PARO spearheaded a new mental health campaign nationwide. In a study by Florida Atlantic University, researchers tested the effectiveness of robotic pet cats to improve symptoms of mood disorders in older adults with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Researchers found that nine categories of pleasant moods and behavior significantly increased on the Mini Mental State Examination score—meaning that therapeutic robotic pets improved the overall emotional state of individuals with Alzheimer's and dementia.
Robotic pets have also been shown to reduce loneliness in the elderly. Due to social distancing measures and restrictions on recreational events, the pandemic exacerbated rates of loneliness and social isolation for older residents in hospitals and nursing homes. This is why hospitals introduced the widespread use of robotic pets as companions for their patients—all of which were funded by Medicare, since the Food and Drug Administration explicitly classifies robotic pets as a biofeedback device.
Another study found that robotic pets had calming effects on the anxious behaviors of 60 percent of residents in nursing homes, increased social behavior by 97 percent among isolated adults, and resulted in overall improved moods and appetite.
But the question remains: Can robotic pets genuinely substitute live pets? On the one hand, robotic pets are convenient: They do not need to be monitored, fed, walked outside, or kept up–to–date with their vaccines. Robotic pets are also much cheaper: For instance, Chinese firm Unitree Robotics has invented a robo–dog that only costs $2,700, whereas the average cost of maintaining a live dog is about $700 to $1,100 annually. And to top it off, robotic pets are theoretically programmed to have all the psychological benefits of a live pet.
On the other hand, it is a natural reaction for pet owners to dislike the very idea of robotic pets. There are growing concerns about the digital age tainting authentic human connections, and the same goes for animal–human relations. There's an undeniable sentiment in nurturing and forming a connection to a live animal that grows to love its owner. This is the very core of all interpersonal relations that has withstood the test of time and technology—and can arguably never be replaced by robots.
At the end of the day, the choice between robotic or live pets is overwhelmingly individual. Elderly people typically prefer robotic pets because they have the reduced stress of caring for their pet, but retain the benefits of companionship. Meanwhile, children prefer live pets because they enjoy the interactive dynamic behavior of live pets, which is limited in the programmed behavior of robotic pets.
Famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud is rumored to have said, “Time spent with cats is never wasted.” And now, if you simply add the adjective “robotic,” the statement might still ring true.