Robot dogs could be just as effective as real pets in reducing loneliness and helping vulnerable people in pandemic lockdowns, two studies have suggested.
The studies found robotic seals – but not real-life budgies – could also help people who are tackling pandemic hardships.
At the start of the pandemic, more than 1.5 million people in the UK were ordered to isolate themselves for at least 12 weeks.
A possible consequence of protecting vulnerable people through social-distancing restrictions is social isolation and loneliness.
The University of Cambridge's school of medicine carried out a systematic review of existing evidence from before the pandemic and found therapies such as robot animals helped to reduce loneliness.
Researchers identified 58 studies of interventions to reduce social isolation and loneliness, which could be adapted for people living in pandemic isolation.
"Lockdown and social-distancing measures have meant that many people have little or no contact with others, which can lead to loneliness and isolation," research team leader Dr Christopher Williams said.
"We carried out our review to try to identify approaches that might help people to cope with these challenging times.
"Although the individual studies took place before the pandemic, we've identified several that would still be feasible even with social-distancing measures in place."
Therapy with robotic dogs would be more feasible for some groups living in pandemic conditions than real dogs, according to the research published in Plos One.
Robotic animals gave better results than a scheme that involved interacting with live budgerigars, the team found.
Other useful techniques include tai chi, laughter therapy, art appreciation, reminiscence therapy, video gaming and indoor gardening.
There are also lessons on friendship, video conferencing and getting to know the neighbours.
"Many of these activities, such as mindfulness, meditation and talking therapies, could be delivered at a large scale in online groups, potentially at low cost," said Dr Adam Townson from Cambridge.
"A significant problem, however, is that those who are most likely to be lonely or isolated, and most in need of support, may not own or know how to use electronic devices, and might not have access to a high-speed internet connection.
"Any approach to help people suffering from loneliness or social isolation must take digital exclusion into consideration."
The research was supported by the National Institute for Health Research.