Baycrest Health Sciences, Pet Therapy, Cat, Robot

Robotic animals offer comfort to clients at Baycrest

Melissa Konat, recreation therapist, pet therapy, study

Melissa Konat, a recreation therapist at Baycrest Health Sciences, is leading a study looking at the effectiveness of robotic animals and the best ways to help clients interact and enjoy pet therapy experiences.

They purr, bark, respond to voice commands and occasionally even shed fur. No, these are not Baycrest Health Sciences’ famous pet therapy animals. They’re a new breed of animatronic dogs and cats designed to interact with people and respond to their environments.

Melissa Konat, a recreation therapist at Baycrest, says that studies have shown pet therapy can help people reduce their anxiety and stress, but it is impractical to have animals at Baycrest at all times of the day and some clients are uncomfortable with real animals.

“Pet therapy provides comfort and a tactile way to interact, which is very therapeutic for our clients,” says Konat. “Robotic pet therapy mimics experiences with real animals and offers a safe and flexible alternative.”

As this is the first time robotic pets are being used at Baycrest, Konat and her colleagues are studying the effectiveness of the robotic animals and the best ways to help clients interact and enjoy the experience.

“We have seen a great response from a few clients who experience anxiety and restlessness,” says Konat. “After petting a robotic cat or dog for a few minutes, they’re able to sit calmly, instead of walking the halls.”

Gary Gallagher, manager of behavioral neurology and inpatient psychiatry at Baycrest, says that his team uses a wide spectrum of interventions to support clients’ needs. “We are always exploring new ways to minimize medications and provide the highest quality client centred care,” says Gallagher. “There are risks and downsides to using too many medications, so if we can help patients relax and enjoy the therapeutic benefits of a robotic pet, it’s a great choice.”

Four robotic pets are now being used and studied at Baycrest and Konat plans to share her findings after collecting more data. These animals were purchased with support from Baycrest’s long-time volunteer and supporter Evelyn Burns-Weinrib.