Animal-Assisted Therapy…Without The Animals
Companion animals are good for our health. Whether through the simple act of stroking a cat’s fur or getting up off the couch to take the dog for a walk, we benefit in myriad ways from the presence of companion animals. The medical community in much of the world knows this as well. Animal-assisted therapy has been shown to improve physical, social, mental, and emotional functions in patients with a variety of disorders. But are live animals essential to create a therapeutic effect?
A group of researchers in China attempted to answer this question. Their study looked at whether the use of pet robot interventions (PRI) could benefit patients with dementia. Worldwide, 47 million people were living with dementia in 2015. That number is forecast to climb to 131 million by 2050. And so far, there is no treatment that will stop the relentless progression of this devastating disease.
Beyond the familiar cognitive decline, there is a constellation of other behavioral and psychological symptoms (BPSD). BPSD includes disturbances of mood, perception and sleep, psychotic features, hyperactivity, and various socially inappropriate behaviors. These conditions are associated with a more rapid progression of dementia as they hasten cognitive decline, reduce quality of life, and impair the ability to perform the activities of daily living. All of this also increases the burden on caregivers.
With no effective medical therapy available, care providers have turned to other treatments such as animal-assisted therapy. However, bringing live animals to long-term care or day care facilities carries risks. These include bites or scratches with the potential for infection and allergic reactions. Furthermore, not all people like animals, and some patients may be afraid of them. Then there is the time and expense of animal care including food, medical care, and exercise.
For these reasons, animal-shaped robots may be a viable alternative. These robots come in a variety of “species.” Their sensors can respond to changes in posture, touch, sound, and light but they don’t require the same care as live animals.
So, can these pet robots help dementia patients? To gather their data, the research team conducted a systematic review of existing studies. They identified six randomized controlled trials of sufficient quality to include in their meta-analysis. PRI was conducted using baby harp seals. Analysis of the pooled data showed a statistically significant decrease in the symptoms of BPSD, especially agitation and depression, in those treated with PRI. While the mechanism of improvement is not clear, these outcomes show that PRI can be useful in clinical practice.
No improvement was detected in cognitive function or quality of life measures. Since dementia is a neurodegenerative disease, the lack of improvement from PRI was not surprising. However, the results on quality of life measures were less clear and deserve more study.
While this research suggests that PRI is an effective therapy for dementia, its use may not always be appropriate or feasible. Cultural differences in the acceptance of pet robots will need to be considered. In Japan, for instance, animal-assisted therapy is not widely used, whereas North Americans and Europeans are more familiar with the practice. The cost of pet robots, including maintenance and repair, may also be a barrier.
Risks of animal-assisted interventions usually focus on the potential dangers for human patients. However, there are also risks for the animals themselves. Patients can mishandle them either accidentally or intentionally. Animals may be placed into therapy settings for which they are not trained, with negative outcomes for both animals and patients. The use of “pet robots” should be of interest to animal advocates because of its potential to improve the lives of patients while reducing risks for companion animals.