Originally created 04/28/97

Therapy program uses pets to heal



AIKEN - Tillie Ta Toot rose on her back legs, hopping somewhat unsteadily as she swatted at the air with one paw.

It's her trick and she was showing off to the delight of Minnie Harmon and Leeveeter Rankin.

Ms. Rankin, 81, halted her walker in its tracks in the hallway of the Aiken nursing home where she lives. Ms. Harmon, dressed in a gray sweatsuit, walked toward Tillie, pointing a finger at the tiny Lhasa apso who dropped to the floor after her balancing act was complete.

"It was waving its little foot. It's the cutest thing," Ms. Rankin said enthusiastically to Tillie's owner, Lynne Martin.

Tillie, who had her long blonde hair combed for an hour and a half before arriving at the Beverly Health and Rehabilitation Center (formerly Aiken Nursing Home), was visiting with her gang of four other dogs and Eddie the cat.

They are part of the Aiken Pet Therapy Program, sponsored by the Aiken Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Every other week they visit the Beverly center; on alternate weeks, different furry friends visit children at Aurora Pavilion. Other nursing homes also are on the animals' visiting list.

The pet therapy program, begun in Aiken about four years ago, is a revival of an earlier program. Nationally, pet facilitated therapy, or PFT, is recognized as an alternative health program that can lower blood pressure, ease stress and loneliness and fight depression.

Erin Merchant, activities director at the facility, said the residents get excited whenever it's time for the pets to come back. Ms. Harmon, 77, who has a hearing problem, has particularly brightened up and responded to the pets in recent weeks.

"She does talk a lot more when she sees the animals," Ms. Merchant said. "They're something she can see and touch."

Karen Spencer, veterinarian at the Aiken Animal Hospital, co-founded the program. She also evaluates the animals' temperaments to see that they are suited to the program.

"It's funny how these animals do touch their lives. It's incredible to watch," Dr. Spencer said.

She recalled visits in past years to the Aurora Pavilion and a small boy who was very withdrawn but made friends with a bird who was part of the menagerie that visited.

"He would come take the cage away and talk to the bird," Dr. Spencer said.

The earliest known pet therapy program was in 1792 in an insane asylum in York, England. It was popularized in the United States by psychologist Boris Levinson, and first put into action at a convalescent home in New York operated by the American Red Cross in 1944.

"Just the smile alone is what's important to them," said John Kolmar, a registered nurse at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Augusta.

He brings Lizzie, a 7-year-old half Silky, half Yorkshire dog, with him on the nursing home visits.

Robert Walker was all smiles upon seeing Lizzie last week, who was decked out with a bandanna around her neck and trotted beside Mr. Kolmar.

"Where have you been? I haven't seen you for a long time," Mr. Walker said. Lizzie put her front paws on his legs and Mr. Kolmar lifted the dog onto Mr. Walker's lap. He was sitting in a wheelchair in an alcove watching television with other nursing home residents.

Tillie warmed up to him too, and also took her turn sitting in his lap. Then, Mr. Walker spied Sasha the Pekingese resting on her haunches, just out of arms length. He coaxed her over for a head-pat.

Kenya, a mid-sized dog described as "custom-made" rather than a mix-breed by his owner Mary Lee Laird, and Rosalita, an Irish Setter owned by Martha Chamberlin, round out the group.

Ms. Chamberlin said Rosalita and her sister, Abby the Springer, who goes to Aurora Pavilion, get excited about their trips.

"They know and they enjoy it too," she said.

For Suzanne Gary, Eddie is always the favorite. He brought back memories of her own cat, Skipper, which she had to give up when she moved to the Beverly Center.

Eddie is delivered up to residents atop a hospital tray on wheels. He's a calm ball of mocha fudge fur, but late into the visit he showed signs of getting tired and meowed a bit testily as his owner Marge Wood plopped him onto Mrs. Gary's lap.

But his serene nature returned and he got back with the program, offering himself up to be stroked and petted. And he reclaimed his perch on the tray as he was wheeled off to the next stop.

Mrs. Gary smiled as tears rolled down her cheeks. Her friend, Tommie King, said Mrs. Gary has had a hard time adjusting to not having Skipper with her.

"She feels down because she lost her cat since she's been in here," he said.