Healthy Aging Column – Here Kitty, Kitty, Robo Kitty

Most of us have heard or read about the advantages of companion animals for senior citizens. Many seniors with pets tend to have lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, fewer heart attacks, decreased bouts of depression and fewer headaches than those without pets. We know that cancer and heart disease can have serious health implications for older adults, but some experts suggest that loneliness can have an even greater impact on health.

ABC News reporter Jackie Judd recently reported on some interesting research involving robotic pets. Knowing that seniors with live pets often feel better and live longer, researchers in Indiana are trying to find out if robotic pets offer the same advantages. From the researchers’ viewpoint, one advantage of a robotic pet is that it does not need to be fed and walked. However, for seniors who are able, feeding and walking a pet provides the advantage of increased activity level.

My own 15-year-old cat died two summers ago, and there are still times when I think about feeding her or letting her out. The caregiving routines that connected us are very ingrained in the patterns of everyday living. It remains to be seen whether current research will find that relationships with robotic pets will be surrogates for the bonds we make with flesh-and-blood pets.

According to the ABC News report, the robotic dog uses sound and lights to convey "feelings" to his human companions. The dog can respond to simple spoken commands from a programmed vocabulary of 75 words. In addition, it can play fetch, sit in your lap to be petted and respond with facial expressions indicated by lights.

A brief survey of Internet information on robotic pets revealed a wealth of material. We know that robotic pets, like Furby, have been around for a number of years, and the trend is not slowing down. Thus it is no surprise that attempts are being made to determine if robotic companions offer the same advantages to lonely seniors as their warm-bodied counterparts.

One only wonders what the results of the current research will be. Will senior care centers and nursing homes give up on programs that now allow volunteers to bring live pets for periodic visits? Will people who have live-in pets replace them with a robotic substitute so no feeding, walking and clean-up maintenance is needed?

Perhaps the seniors who are responding to robotic pets are also enjoying more attention, for the time being, from humans interested in the studies. After the novelty wears off, will senior citizens and others really develop long-lasting relationships with the robot-chameleons?

From my own sentiment, I’d rather not be calling, "Here kitty, kitty," to a plastic cat!

Additional articles on Healthy Aging are available on the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Web site. Go to then click on the Consumer/Family link under Information Online.