Scooter just might be the most amazing, most appreciated therapy animal to ever grace a hospital hallway. While institutional doors have opened to an increasing number of dogs, Scooter is a cat, and that's a rarity in therapy circles.
Therapy dogs spread joy. So does Scooter, but he also comforts and inspires.
His hind legs are paralyzed because his spine was broken two years ago when he was a kitten. Betsy Kennon, the veterinarian who saved his life, straps him into a custom-made wheeled cart that supports his lifeless legs. Then off they go to HealthSouth Harmarville Rehabilitation Hospital.
Scooter has a special rapport with patients who cannot walk because of injuries and strokes. On one of his first hospital visits, a patient solemnly watched as the 9-pound black-and-white cat made his rounds, front paws trotting and back wheels spinning.
"If he can do it, so can I," said the woman, who had just had a leg amputated.
Scooter and Dr. Kennon are featured in the August cover story of Reader's Digest Magazine. "A surfing dog, a heroic cat and four more Amazing Pets," says the headline on the cover, which includes a photograph of a pug on a surfboard. "Healer on Wheels" says the headline above Scooter's story.
This story began two years ago when a nameless, homeless kitten was rushed to Harts Run Veterinary Hospital in Fox Chapel. A clinic client reported that his pet husky had brought home the kitten in his mouth. The horrified client thought his dog had injured the kitten.
"I was sure the dog did not cause the injury because there were no teeth marks or puncture wounds" on the body of the 6-month old kitten, Dr. Kennon said. "I think the dog saved the kitten."
The kitten was in shock and could not move its hind legs because its last thoracic vertebrae was fractured. Most veterinarians would have said euthanasia was the most humane option. But the kitten looked at Dr. Kennon with "big, expressive gold eyes," and she decided to try to save him. He spent several days in the clinic, mewing and purring and charming everyone.
Harts Run clients donated $300 to buy a custom-made wheeled mobility device from K9 Carts. The kitten adapted quickly, and the staff named him Scooter. Several months later, Dr. Kennon moved to Northview Veterinary Hospital in Ross, which now provides all of Scooter's veterinary needs.
Dr. Kennon took him home, where he quickly adapted to life with her four dogs, three cats, a lovebird and a tank of fish.
"He's in charge of all the dogs, gets along with the cats and enjoys watching my fish. He did, at first, try to eat my bird" but quickly learned that is forbidden, she said with a chuckle.
At home, he doesn't use his wheels. He scoots around by using his front legs to pull his rear end, which is padded by a baby diaper. He has learned how to go up and down steps. He has even caught five mice, which is something Dr. Kennon's other cats have never attempted.
Just two months after Scooter entered her life, Dr. Kennon decided she had to share this special cat. She called the Harmarville facility.
"I was rolling my eyes," recreation therapist Karen Hinkes said.
She loves dogs and cats, and greatly appreciates the two therapy dogs that make regular visits. Although Ms. Hinkes didn't think a cat could cut it, "Dr. Kennon would not take 'no' for an answer," and Scooter came in for a tryout.
When Dr. Kennon put her cat in the arms of a stroke victim, the patient spoke for the first time since being admitted. "Kitty," said the patient. The staff was in tears, and Scooter was in.
Scooter visits Harmarville Rehabilitation Hospital every Wednesday. Dr. Kennon takes him to other facilities, including Golden Living Center in Oakmont.
"It's amazing how people relate to animals," Dr. Kennon said. "The therapy visits are really the highlight of my week. Scooter is calm and mellow."
Although he is not declawed, he always sheaths his claws in the presence of patients, she says.
"He's really just a normal cat," Dr. Kennon said. "To him, this is just the way life is, and he makes the most of it."
Pet Tales appears weekly in the Saturday Home & Garden section. Linda Wilson Fuoco: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3064.