Studies show therapy pets can boost energy levels, self-esteem, and mood and decrease depression, but is that true when the animals are mechanical?
The San Jacinto College South Campus Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society chapter explored this with its annual Honors in Action project. This community service project helps the chapter maintain its five-star status, which it has held for the last 16 years.
"Becoming a five-star chapter takes a lot of work," said Elizabeth McKinley, San Jac professor and PTK advisor. "Our students dedicate a lot of their time to these projects and their success."
The theme for the 2022 Honors in Action project was "The Art and Science of Play." With that in mind, PTK members spent weeks researching to find a fitting project.
"One student brought us an idea for mechanical pets to use as therapy animals," McKinley said. "We thought it was a fantastic idea."
Students contacted Ageless Innovation's Joy for All Companion Pets and received six donated mechanical dogs from the company to kick off their project. With help from a $1,000 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant, the group bought eight cats as well.
"When we received the animals, everyone immediately fell in love with them," McKinley said. "Dr. Connie Gomez calls two of them Dixie and Beamer for the cross streets nearest the campus. Our faculty members have asked us to bring them to their classes for exam anxiety relief. We didn't anticipate the connection the students and faculty would have for these animals."
For their Honors in Action project, the PTK students chose to take their mechanical therapy pets to a local nursing home, Park Manor - South Belt Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.
For their first visit to Park Manor with their mechanical pets in November 2022, 12 students and their PTK advisors took the animals to visit the elderly residents, unsure of how they would react.
"Our residents were thrilled with the animals," said Bianca Partida, Park Manor activity director. "They were infatuated with how the cats and dogs moved and reacted to their touch. It brought so much joy to them that we've decided to apply for a grant ourselves to purchase our own mechanical pets."
The 14 mechanical pets can look, feel, and sound like real animals. They respond to petting, hugging, and motion much like the real ones but don't require any special care or feeding.
"We can bring a rich, comforting experience to some of our aging population through this scientific innovation without fear of animals, allergic reactions, safety concerns, or costly veterinary bills," McKinley said.
PTK student president Elsie Bura is eager to see where this program will take them in the future. The student organization already has plans to visit pediatric wards and veteran centers this spring.
"It's been an incredible project to work on," said Bura. "When we began, we had no idea it would be this impactful for our community or this exciting for our members. We can't wait to expand it to other organizations and groups in 2023."