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Lifelike Robotic Cats for Seniors: Are They Sad or Helpful?

The companion toys from Hasbro respond to affection and don't need feeding or litter boxes.

Keith Bowers  |  Nov 30th 2015


Late last week I came across something that carried a sad feeling, what I sometimes call “The Big Universal Sadness,” a low-level background noise repeating (approximately) We’re all in this alone, a reminder of the first noble truth of Buddhism, which is that to live is to suffer. At the same time, it was a comforting thing, a faint reminder (approximately) that We’re all in this together, a reminder from a different angle of that first noble truth.

Technology and culture publication The Verge put it concisely in a tweet: Hasbro’s new robotic cats will make you feel a little less alone, and a little more alone

What was it? A line of lifelike, robotic cats from Hasbro aimed at senior citizens who could benefit from but can’t (or just don’t want to) care for a real cat. The product line is called Joy for All. Here’s one:

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Photos via Hasbro

We’ve written before that some senior citizens reach a point where they can no longer effectively care for a cat, and also that a kitten is a very bad idea as a holiday gift for an older person. These are facts of life, biological conditions of this mortal coil that, for some people, all the positive thinking and self-help literature on the planet won’t remedy.

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The toys are equipped with motion and light sensors so will respond to being petted or otherwise touched, according to a report by Toyland. The cats, which sell for $99, also purr — they have a vibration mechanism that makes it seem more real. Apparently the whole thing is pretty advanced — it will move toward you when you get close. It will also eventually roll over after getting a certain amount of back petting. It closes its eyes and “falls asleep” — which not only mimics a real cat but also saves battery life.

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My first point: What if people who love cats but can no longer care for one want such a companion? Or what if a person who no longer has the mental capacity to know the difference wants a cat? I don’t see these becoming a total replacement for a person’s love and affection, but rather a supplement.

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Which brings me to my second point: Our culture has an undeniable love affair with objects, so why should we reject the idea of a lifelike cat? Think of how attached you might have gotten to, say, vehicles you’ve owned. I’ve named nearly every one of my motorcycles — my current one I call Helmut — and I miss them when they’re gone. I’ve also had trusted articles of clothing — strong jackets or great shirts — that have been difficult to let go. We customize our laptops, tablets, and smartphones, anthropomorphizing them to an extent. The robotic cat is different only in that it serves no utilitarian purpose such as transportation or computing, and it’s a little more up-front about what it is.

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These items might also be good for some kids. For years we’ve had talking dolls as well as stuffed animals that have various lifelike components.

As for the question of are these sad or helpful, perhaps they’re both. Much like real cats, they might serve as a reflection of us and thereby help us understand ourselves and this life a little better.

What do you think? Would you get a cat like this for an aging relative, a child in your family, or yourself?

About Keith Bowers: This broad-shouldered, bald-headed, leather-clad motorcyclist also has passions for sharp clothing, silver accessories, great writing, the arts, and cats. This career journalist loves painting, sculpting, photographing, and getting on stage. He once was called “a high-powered mutant,” which also describes his cat, Thomas. He is senior editor at Catster.