Pet therapy is a great way to improve mood and alleviate anxiety in hospitalized patients, especially in the pediatric population. However, not every hospital has such a service and many patients may not be allowed to handle pets due to contact precautions, weak immune systems, and other limitations.

One hospital in Australia is planning to bring virtual pet therapy through virtual reality to its patients as an alternative. Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, an affiliate of the Royal Children’s Hospital, has partnered with the Melbourne Zoo and tech start-up Phoria to produce a VR experience for children staying in the hospital. Kids will get the opportunity to take a virtual trip to the zoo, and avoid the restrictions imposed on bringing actual animals onto a pediatric ward.

The experiences are produced using a 360-degree video setup to record at the zoo, as well as a robotic rover to move throughout the zoo. This recorded video is then edited to work with a virtual reality headset (a Samsung Gear VR is demonstrated in a press photo) and brought into the hospital for the children to try out. Developers hope to decrease anxiety and the need for pain medications in patients that get to try the VR experiences out. We’ve had some promising examples of use of virtual reality for pain management in particular. And some hospitals have gone so far as to build out entire “virtual reality units.

Children are particularly open to virtual reality interventions, with a high degree of presence reported in research. Hospital stays can be a lonely, frightening experience for adults, and even more so for children. Hopefully, these VR experiences, including virtual pet therapy, can help alleviate some of the stressors of such stays.