Tamagotchis, the cyberpets that took children by storm last year, are to be offered to hundreds of people at nursing homes and senior citizens' day centers in Britain as a substitute for cats and dogs.

The retirees will be trained to care for their electronic pets by pre-teen computer whizzes. The pilot program in London, operated by Bandai, the Japanese toy company, also uses a manual with larger print."They will have to care for their virtual pet, give it a balanced diet of meals and snacks and give it regular exercise," said a spokeswoman for the company.

There could be problems, however. The pets have been banned from several schools after children found feeding them compulsive.

"It doesn't sound as though this will be very soothing for the pensioners," said Catherine Carroll, a psychotherapist.

The aim of the program is to replicate the therapeutic effects of owning a cat or dog.

Dist. by Scripps Howard News Service