Kids with cancer get quality kitty time via interactive Webcams

Seattle Children's Hospital sets up an online experience that lets isolated young cancer patients play with furry friends in real time.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
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Leslie Katz
3 min read

The cancer ward at Seattle Children's Hospital will be overrun with cats tomorrow. Lots and lots of cats.

Normally, this would be extremely problematic in a sterile medical environment, but not in this case. Young cancer patients with immunities too low to participate in pet therapy will get to physically connect with the felines via an interactive online playroom. Rabbits, puppies, and goats too.

This cat at the Humane Society of Dallas Texas is resting up in preparation for a big day of play tomorrow. Video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET

They'll do so via a live interface set up by Seattle Children's and Boise, Idaho-based Reach-in, which created the interactive technology that lets remote viewers control fluffy robotic cat toys in real time. It's not the same as holding a furry friend, but it might be the next best thing for these kids, some of whom must remain in total isolation while they battle cancer.

"That's why this project is so neat and special -- it will allow for pet interactions with a variety of animals in a way that is fun, safe, and is personal for them," Helen Kathryn Sernett of the Seattle Children's Hospital Foundation said in a statement. Open Lab Idaho, a community of hackers and makers, also helped set up the project.

For an hour tomorrow, starting at 1:30 p.m. PT, patients from toddlers to young adults will be able to interact with kittens at the Idaho Humane Society, and cats, bunnies, and other animals at the Humane Society of Dallas Texas. Remote-controlled toys at the facilities are attached to motors; buttons on a browser make them skip and jump.

The kids will also be able to control a minisubmarine to figure out clues to locate a sunken ship in the game Dive Commmander, whose aquatic environment features live fish.

Each user will get two minutes of play time to physically control the devices in the online rooms, but there's no limit to how many times a user can hop in the online queue.

Interactive kitty Webcams aren't new to animal shelters. iPet Companion, the same interactive online kitten playroom the Seattle patients will visit tomorrow, has been employed by shelters coast-to-coast to boost animal adoption rates. Each shelter determines specific play hours (cats, of course, need their nap time).

But the play doesn't just benefit the cats. Numerous studies suggest that animals can have a significant positive impact on children's self-esteem, sense of personal responsibility, ethics, and social skills. They also indicate that pet companionship can ameliorate the effects and aftereffects of trauma. And, Seattle Children's Hospital hopes, just provide some good old furry fun.

The hospital has personally observed the powerful impact of pets on sick children. Earlier this year, it spearheaded the heartwarming "Cat Immersion Project," asking the public to submit digital images of cats for a teen patient with a compromised immune system who hadn't seen her feline for weeks.

The institution received thousands of submissions and then projected the digital cat compilation in a special tent built over the delighted young girl's hospital bed.

The iPet Companion system lets viewers maneuver remote-controlled cat toys like these in real time. Reach-in