By Stephanie Stahl

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PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Robots are increasingly replicating more and more lifelike human behavior, but can they imitate animals? This is a different twist on robotic pets and scientists say they can serve as friends and therapy aids to the growing elderly population.

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Helen Nicholas, who used to run a family business, now finds comfort and joy with a robotic puppy. She suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.

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“My mom was real good with finances, balancing her checkbook,” said son Michael Nicholas. “She came in to see me one day with a check and go, ‘Mike, what do I do with this?'”

Helen Nicholas now lives in an Alzheimer’s community where residents enjoy lifelike dogs and cats without the burdens of taking care of real ones.

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“There has been times where they’ve been engaged with both pets for over 45 minute. Now, to have that kind of activity going on for that length of time in a whole group setting is amazing all by itself, but then we go more on a personal, one-on-one, especially those patients that really show a real desire to be with this cat or dog even longer,” said Mary Barnes, the president and CEO of Alzheimer’s Community Care.

Experts say the robotic companion pets can sooth the agitation and anxiety that often accompany dementia and Alzheimer’s, and they’re a drug-free way to help reduce stress, depression and isolation.

“The stimulation is keeping everyone animated, keeping everyone socially engaged with each other because they’re with their peers and you can’t ever undervalue the relationship with your peers,” said Barnes.

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Research is inconclusive on whether the benefits of robotic therapy pets are lasting, but Michael Nicholas says the companion pet holds his mother’s attention for longer than other activities, and she often falls asleep with her pet, Ace, gently barking in her lap.

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One study showed caregivers were able to reduce medication for Alzheimer’s patients with robotic pets, compared to patients that had standard activity programs.

Stephanie Stahl