Robotic Pets for Animal Therapy?

May 2, 2013

animal therapy

by Sandy Cosser

You may have heard of animal therapy. In fact, you have almost definitely heard of animal therapy because it was used quite a lot after 9/11 to help survivors deal with the trauma. It is exactly what it says on the tin; animals (pets) are used as therapeutic aids. They’re used in a variety of circumstances. Psychologists use pet therapy to help autistic children, ADHD children, children in hospitals, and the elderly in aged care facilities. In fact, animal therapy goes back all the way to Greek God of Healing Asclepius.

You may immediately think of dogs as therapy animals, but a number of animals can be used, including cats, birds, and horses.

Even robotic seals get in on the action.

Say again?

Paro is a robotic seal that was first developed in Japan (where else) as a substitute for real pets in aged care homes. This was way back in 1993 – well, that’s when development started. By 2002 he was setting world records (for the most therapeutic robot, so he’s not alone in the world), and by 2004 he was winning over people in old age homes. In 2009, he started to achieve international success, especially in Denmark (

It’s not as crazy as it sounds because the furry therapeutic robot has proven to be as successful as real animals. In fact, Paro has a couple of advantages over the real thing; foremost of which is that he doesn’t need to be house trained.

He’s also hypoallergenic, so there is no worry that ill children or fragile old people will end up in hives or with chronic sinus problems. And, there is no chance that he will be spooked or get overexcited and hurt someone (therapy animals are carefully selected for their mild nature, but let’s face it, all animals can be unpredictable – people included).

Thanks to his robotic nature, Paro is not merely a passive toy, absorbing cuddles and giving nothing back. Shibata Takanori, senior research scientist at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), designed him to be interactive. He responds to attention – spoken and tactile – and even has a range of facial expressions to express his joy at being petted. And, he doesn’t like it when people get too rough, which helps teach autistic kids some important lessons.

Better than the real thing?

Surely a robotic seal, no matter how cute and hygienic, couldn’t be preferred over a real live dog or cat? Well, it seems that the aged in Japan really do prefer their automated therapy.

In April 2010, Robotic Zeitgeist reported that the demand for Paro was so great that Fujitsu was inspired to make its own therapeutic aid, this time in the form of a robotic teddy bear. It also comes with sensors galore so that it can respond to touch and voice.

So, is it better than the real thing?

Not everyone is sold on the idea of robot animal therapists. People in western world, for example, haven’t taken to robots with the zeal of those in the Orient. Perhaps too many sci-fi books and movies have made us wary of artificial intelligence, at least as far as trusting it with the mental health of our loved ones goes.

As far as children are concerned, it seems that real animals are better than the robotic kind. This is because children form a real bond with the animals. In many cases, the animals have their own disabilities to overcome, which deepens the bond and promotes healing on both sides.

Whether you like you therapy pets with real flesh and blood or with programmed emotional responses, there is a growing body of evidence that proves furry friends can play a vital role as companions and therapeutic aids in hospitals, aged care facilities, and even jails.

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