How robotic pets at SF General Hospital are bringing comfort to the elderly, defying skeptics

Lyanne Melendez Image
Tuesday, October 11, 2022
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SF General Hospital has about 50 robotic cats and dogs for elderly patients, which have brought calmness, happiness, and companionship.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- We've known that pets provide comfort care for people who are in hospitals, but they aren't always available or practical for some patients. In their place, some hospitals are introducing robotic pets.

"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.

SF General now has about 50 robotic cats and dogs for their patients in the Acute Care for Elders unit. They cost between $120 and $150, with the dogs being slightly more expensive.

Nurse Beckie Rono remembers giving one to an agitated patient, who named it Ruby.

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"So we gave her a cat and it was night and day," Rono said. "She really loved it. She was petting it, talking to it and it definitely helped her reduce her agitation."

Nillson said that they noticed similar positive reactions from many of the patients.

"First of all the patient, it brings a smile to their faces when they see the animals because it brings so much joy, some of them laugh, they think they are funny," added Nillson.

The pets bring a sense of calmness, as the non-living gives comfort to the living.

"Whether a pet is living or it's a stuffed animal or a doll, as an example, or it's the robotic pet, it really doesn't matter. It's that opportunity to connect and feel connected," explained Kim Meredith, CEO of the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation.

While they benefit the elderly, they're also great for children. A Columbia University study found these robot companions lowered pain and anxiety in children who were hospitalized.

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Since 2004, the foundation has raised $34 million thanks to the heart sculptures auction. That's how the robotic pet pilot program was funded.

They look and sound so real that at times a few patients seemed to not know the difference.

"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.

Bringing laughter through technology is, in this case, the best medicine.

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