San Francisco General Hospital Is Using Robotic Pets to Soothe Patients

It’s not as creepy as you’d think.

As human beings, we’re intrinsically tied to nature — and, by proxy, the other sentient beings we share this planet with. This is why caring for pets (and even plants) has been shown to reduce levels of stress and anxiety, bolster creativity and empathy, and help bolster mental health, overall.

For hospitalized individuals, the very motion of petting an animal can offer solace and calm during a time when both those feelings seem fleeting. But there’s a problem: What if, say, that person is allergic to certain types of animals?

Well, that’s where robotic pets can step in and fill the gap… to surprising rates of success, no less.

As part of the San Francisco Department of Public Health’s Robotic Pet Pilot Program, 50 robotic cats and dogs were recently given to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital’s Acute Care for Elders unit to be used with patients. Each unit costs between $120 and $150; the dogs are slightly more expensive.

An added upside to living pets? They require little to no upkeep.

“Easy to take care of these cats because they don’t need to be fed, they don’t need to go outside, they just stay with you inside all the time,” said Annelie Nillson, the manager of the Robotic Pet Pilot Program at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, to ABC7.

Nillson said that they have already noticed positive reactions and changes from many of the patients that they’ve allowed to interact with the robotic pets. These individuals noted a reduction in feelings of agitation, anxiety, and fear that surrounded their realities.

These observations are in line with results found in a 2016 study published in the Current Gerontology and Geriatrics Research journal. Study participants that the use of animal-assisted therapy — a practice that involved a wide range of fauna, including fish, birds, and reptiles among the more common mammalian pets — were reported to suffer from less behavioral disturbances, had increased levels of socializing, and lower rates of depression. Moreover: Many of these same benefits were observed when patients blindly handled toy pets, too — making a strong case for SFDPH’s Robotic Pet Pilot Program.

There have been some amusing fumbles, though.

“We also had some people think they were real cats that died and we stuffed them, like a taxidermy cat, like one patient, said ‘I hope that was a happy cat when it was alive.’ That was a funny story,” said Nillson as she smiled.

Well… isn’t laughter one of the best forms of medicine, anyways?

Leave a Reply