It looks like something that could be picked off the shelves of Toys R Us, but care providers are singing the praises of Paro, the robotic seal, for therapeutic applications.

Paro is a robot designed to resemble a baby harp seal in appearance and mannerisms, capable of interacting with patients through sensors that recognize light, sound, motion, temperature, and posture. AIST, the Japan-based manufacturer of Paro, says that the robot learns to recognize certain words and gestures, and will respond to being stroked or held. The premise is that the device will offer the benefits of therapy pets without the limitations characteristic of live animals.

Toronto's Centre for Addition and Mental Health (CAMH) recently purchased a number of the devices for therapeutic treatment for clients. The Centre has been using Paro for clients suffering depression and dementia for helping to reduce loneliness and to help clients focus so that they are less prone to wandering. Caregivers hope that interacting with the device may help patients assume a caring role, which would recall behaviours the clients may have previously had with a pet or a child. The assumption of familiar behaviours is in itself purported to be therapeutic for these patients.

Responses to the device's use with elderly patients have been mixed. In 2010, the Wall Street Journal questioned the ethics of using the device in nursing homes; the article suggests that the device may be used as a substitute for genuine human care and interaction. The New York Times counters that although the devices are better for emotional interaction than toys, they will supplement rather than replace friendships and family bonds. Slate.com emphasizes benefits of the device as a pet not a person surrogate.

Although more studies are reporting positive findings, the high cost of Paro (upwards of $5000) will continue to limit use of this cuddly therapy device.

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