Closeup of robotic cats in laps of day center attendees; Image credit: Florida Atlantic University

When given their own robotic pets, adults with dementia showed significantly improved mood scores, including reduced depression over time, a new study has found.

The intervention took place over 12 visits to an adult day center, and involved 12 attendees with mild-to-moderate dementia. Each participant received an interactive robotic cat that they were encouraged to name, and each pet was fitted with a collar and name tag. Participants were told that their pet was a robot and not a live animal.

Researchers assessed mood and behavioral symptoms using a number of standardized mood, emotion and depression scales during the intervention. They also measured cognition using the Mini Mental State Examination. 

The tests showed improvement across all mood scores over time, reported María de los Ángeles Ortega Hernández, DNP, and colleagues. The most significant improvements appeared in the Observed Emotion Rating Scale and the Cornell Scale of Depression in Dementia. In addition, more than half of the participants had higher scores in the Mini Mental State Examination. 

There was also slight-to-moderate improvement in attention/calculation, language and registration as well, the researchers reported. Additionally, scores on the Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias Mood Scale were six points higher than pretest conditions.

“[O]ur project offers a way to address symptoms naturally and without the use of pharmacological treatments, which may or may not be effective and have possible detrimental side effects,” said co-author Bryanna Streit LaRose, DNP. “Our intervention was affordable, safe, and noninvasive.” 

Engagement with the cats

Not only did the interactions appear to improve mood, behaviors and cognition, but the robot pets provided participants with an alternative way to express themselves, the researchers said.

Day center attendees were observed stroking and speaking to their robotic pets. Some carried their cats with them, including one who slept with their cat during a hospital visit. They were often observed smiling and talking to the robots, and appeared to believe that the pet was responding to them through its meowing and movements.

Several family members reported that participants slept with their pet after the intervention concluded, the researchers said.

The study was published in the journal Issues in Mental Health Nursing.