Positive Strokes--From Pets : Health: Animal visits are therapy at the rehabilitation unit of Centinela Hospital. Each week, volunteers bring dogs, kittens and even a potbellied pig to comfort the ill.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The elderly man sits mute in a chair by the window, watching as a comic-looking black pig in a red polka-dot bow lolls on the floor of a hospital room.

Other patients are chortling at the pig's antics, but the man is distant, seemingly oblivious.

Then, at long last, in a raspy voice barely audible above the laughter, he says something about a farm. There were pigs at his aunt's farm, the farm in Red Bank. "She had a chicken," he recalls, and pauses. "We had to take two trains to get there."

The man is recovering from a stroke in the rehabilitation unit of Centinela Hospital Medical Center. Each week, volunteers stop by with a bevy of animals--dogs, maybe a kitten, and this time a potbellied pig--as part of the hospital's pet therapy program.

Among the program's goals is exactly what happened here: a normally withdrawn patient reaching out and ruminating aloud about memories.

"Even later, I'd pass by his room, and he'd say, 'It was so nice, those animals,' " said therapy supervisor Corine Lensink.

Pet therapy is an idea whose time has come in the South Bay and throughout Southern California, with a number of hospitals allowing animals to enter the normally sterile quarters. Many believe the pets have a calming effect on anxious patients, comforting them and softening pain, loneliness and despair.

Patients are encouraged to stroke the pets, ask questions about them and even bring a cat or small dog onto their wheelchairs so they can touch their fur and scratch their ears.

"You have a patient who's very depressed. You put a little dog in their lap, and their face just lights up," Lensink said.

The 3-year-old Centinela program is conducted through the Friends of Animals Foundation, a nonprofit group in West Los Angeles. Each week, the group's volunteers visit Centinela Hospital, dogs and other animals in tow. Some of the animals belong to the volunteers; a few come from the group's shelter.

Pets and volunteers convened one spring afternoon at the main entrance of Centinela, a 403-bed hospital in Inglewood.

This week's brigade consists of a yellow Labrador retriever, a mixed retriever, a poodle, a puppy and the guest of honor--a potbellied pig borrowed from a Westchester pet store and christened Kevin Bacon.

The pig pauses to sniff a patch of pavement as startled passersby stop and stare. Then the menagerie marches en masse into the hospital and heads for the rehabilitation unit, where a dozen patients await them in a conference room.

Some smile as the dogs arrive. An older woman reaches out her hand to touch the poodle that volunteer Penny J. Burns carries in a pouch.

"I'm interested in seeing things. Dogs and pigs," says patient Mamie Wilson, 60. "It makes the time go faster."

Another woman warily studies the pig, concluding simply: "It's all right with me."

The atmosphere turns almost rowdy as the dogs roam, the pig sniffs, and patients laugh and applaud. This is hardly the solemn, strait-laced mood that a hospital frequently inspires.

"It's so unhospital- like. And that's what we're aiming for in rehab," Lensink said.

The 34-bed rehabilitation unit treats people recovering from strokes, complex surgery such as knee-joint replacement, serious arthritis, or head or back injuries. The unit tries to prepare them for their return home, and pet therapy serves as another type of bridge, reminding them of the world outside the hospital, said unit manager Joyce Kovalik.

Gentle, well-behaved dogs are the most reliable guests, whereas cats can be too skittish for an institutional environment, organizers said. Dogs are first taken to convalescent homes "so they can get used to the elevators and the wheelchairs," said Friends of Animals President Martha Wyss. They are bathed and groomed before each visit.

One popular Centinela guest is a tortoise named Penelope. And three rabbits adorned with ribbons proved a hit when they visited near Easter.

The Centinela program was spearheaded by Burns, a Friends of Animals volunteer who frequently brings her own dogs to the hospital. Burns would like to expand the program but lacks the volunteers. "The demand is there. There's just not enough people and animals," Burns said.

Indeed, so-called pet therapy has been spreading so rapidly--to hospitals, nursing homes, psychiatric centers and even jails nationwide--that experts are cautioning institutions not to launch programs too hastily.

"As the media picks up on these stories, people think, 'Oh, what a neat idea, let's do it,' " said Linda Hines, executive director of the Delta Society, a national nonprofit group based in Renton, Wash., that deals with the interaction of people and animals.

But a successful program requires careful screening and training for both animals and those handling them, said Hines, whose group is planning training seminars coast to coast this year.

Hines tries to avoid the term pet therapy ("It doesn't have much respect in the health field") and instead divides the field into two parts: pet-assisted therapy, a specific treatment conducted by a licensed therapist or other professional, usually in a one-on-one situation; and pet-assisted activities, a less-formal approach often involving groups of volunteers and animals.

The latter category, she says, accounts for 90% of what people label pet therapy. "The animals come in and brighten a patient's day," Hines said.

Both approaches are being used at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, considered a leader in the field. The hospital now has 27 volunteers and 26 dogs visiting virtually every section of the hospital, including surgical intensive care, said recreation therapist Holli Pfau, who oversees the Huntington program.

In a Los Angeles program by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, volunteers and pets visit five children's hospitals and convalescent homes. The program has a waiting list of other hospitals interested in pet visits.

Torrance Memorial Medical Center started a pet program in its psychiatric services unit a year ago, using hospital volunteers' trained dogs. The program now has six dogs and is looking for more. And a professional animal trainer pays regular visits to rehabilitation patients at Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital in Inglewood, bringing two dogs, a cat, rabbits and guinea pigs.

Some in the medical world have been skeptical about such programs, but advocates point to recent studies suggesting that animal contact can help humans both physically and psychologically--maybe even lowering the heart rate.

Judith M. Siegel, a UCLA public health professor, has found that elderly pet owners visit doctors less frequently than those who do not have pets.

At Centinela Hospital, some patients' blood pressure has actually dropped after a visit from the pet brigade, Lensink said. "It's a calm and relaxing effect. The patients feel comfortable," she said.

And patients aren't the only ones who can benefit from pet programs. The animals' weekly arrival has attracted a loyal following among Centinela staff members.

"It helps me, " Kovalik said. "We all pet the dogs, and we're all charged up again, and we go back out."

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