Imagine a dog or cat that provides warmth and nuzzling at just the moment you’re feeling anxious or down. Unlike other pets, this one never scratches or barks and doesn’t require treats, walks or kitty litter. There’s something else different about this animal: It’s a robot.

Battery-operated therapy animals may be the next big thing in helping soothe and provide companionship for lonely senior citizens and people with health conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, autism and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Recently they got their 15 minutes of fame when a robotic seal made its debut as a companion animal in the Netflix series “Master of None.” Such seals exist in real life; they were developed 10 years ago by a Japanese engineer and are used in some nursing homes around the world. They’re not cheap, but for $6,000, they can scan for certain clues about what a person is feeling or communicating and respond with sounds and movements that mimic true communication, says Cindy Bethel, PhD, associate professor of computer science at Mississippi State University. Bethel is involved in research on robotic therapy animals.

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A toy maker has come up with a much less expensive cat robot with a smaller range of responses, Bethel says. Pat it on the back and it purrs. Keep patting and it rolls over. Stroke its left cheek and it nuzzles into your hand. It lacks the artificial intelligence of the seal but costs only about $100.

Customized companionship?

Bethel is now working on a project to develop a robotic beagle that she says will have more refined capabilities than either of the other two, with a projected price about midway between them. Mental-health professionals would be able to use an app to program the dog and customize its responses for different types of end users. The pooch would behave differently with an autistic child than with an elderly person with dementia or PTSD, for instance.

Beyond that, the hope is that it will be sensitive to different personalities. “We are in process of using machine learning to respond to the individual user,” says Bethel. In theory the canine robot would pick up signals that a particular person doesn’t like nuzzling and avoid that behavior in the future.

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As good as a real pet?

Living, breathing therapy dogs bring comfort to hospitalized children and people with autism and developmental disorders, according to the nonprofit think tank National Center for Health Research. Dogs brought for visits to nursing homes ease loneliness among the elderly and encourage social interaction. But would the same happen if that warm, loving, fuzzy creature were replaced by an artificial one whose fur was fake and whose empathetic reactions were programmed?

Early studies with artificial companionship have shown promising results, Bethel says, but little research has been done on whether robotic animals are as effective as living ones.

Sherry Turkle, PhD, a professor of science, technology and society at MIT, has been a critic of the robotic pet movement, saying there are inherent differences between real, back-and-forth communication and simulated responses. The use of robot animals in nursing homes means we are outsourcing interaction to machines, she has said in numerous talks and papers.

“The emphasis has been put on whether the older person will talk to the robot,” Turkle said in a 2015 talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “All the articles are about, will the older people talk to this robot? Will the robot be persuasive enough to do that?

“It’s not just that the older people are supposed to be talking. Younger people are supposed to listening.”

But staffing shortages can make it difficult to give people with dementia or developmental disabilities the day-long, one-on-one contact that they might crave. And Bethel points out that live companion animals aren’t always a possibility. The need to feed, walk and otherwise care for them makes them a problematic solution for people in nursing homes and other care facilities. Some people are allergic to animals, and for clients whose conditions can result in erratic behavior, there’s no risk of animal abuse with a robot.

Robot pets may not love you back, but can they provide comfort? Ask the people who snuggle them.

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Karin Klein is a California-based journalist covering health, science, education and food policy. For 26 years she worked as an assigning editor and editorial writer for The Los Angeles Times.