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'Dr. Betsy' and Scooter, her paraplegic therapy cat, bring happiness to Western Pa. nursing homes

Valley News-Dispatch - 2/17/2020

Feb. 17--Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series that features Alle-Kiski Valley residents and the notable things that they do.

Goodwill doesn't retire easily when it comes to animals and the vulnerable.

For more than more than 11 years, a now-retired veterinarian known as "Dr. Betsy" Kennon of Fawn and her paraplegic therapy cat, Scooter, have been visiting local nursing homes.

In his little wheeled cart supporting his back legs, the tuxedo-colored feline is led on a leash to patient rooms at Platinum Ridge Center for Rehabilitation and Healing in Brackenridge. One such visit took place Friday.

"Here comes Scooter," aides announce as the good doctor and her surprisingly mellow and affectionate cat approach patients in wheelchairs and at their bedside.

"You know when I visit, they don't say 'hi' to me," Kennon said. "It's always about Scooter."

That is the plan, though.

Dr. Betsy is still astounded by the joy the surprisingly friendly cat brings to others.

The good vibes are so contagious that after a personal care home visit, the veterinarian comes home a happy person. Same thing happens at Animal Protectors in New Kensington, where she volunteers vet services once a week and for special cases.

She has found need -- or need has found her.

Betsy Kennon, 66, grew up in Mt. Lebanon and has lived in Fawn for 30 years.

She earned her doctorate in veterinary medicine from the University of Pennsylvania. She's worked as a vet at the Harts Run Animal Hospital in Indiana Township and Northview Animal Hospital in Ross.

After happily retiring in 2016, only a year had passed when Kennon and her husband, Steve Nehus, were cleaning and found they had a lot of old blankets and towels that would could be useful for an animal shelter.

"When I was talking to the shelter manager at Animal Protectors, I let it slip that I was a vet," she said. "They were on me like a chicken on a June bug," she said. But the amount of time required for her help has been worth it as the shelter need was great.

"She's very generous with her time and experience," said Phyllis Framel, an Animal Protectors board member. "And she's a lot of fun!" But there's Scooter, Framel quickly added.

Scooter's near-mythic status as a therapy cat is her more unlikely scenario, and the resulting volunteer work. He is a former national SPCA cat of the year.

A regular pet owner brought in the limp black-and-white cat to the Harts Run clinic after his dog carried it in its mouth to him. "He's an animal lover, and he was upset that his dog might have hurt the cat."

Turns out the dog likely saved the cat.

Something such as a car had smashed one of Scooter's back vertebrae. "Logically, he should have just been put to sleep," Kennon said, "but something wouldn't let me do it."

As the severely injured cat recovered at the clinic, he was given a Tupperware container customized with wheels. He began wheeling himself all over the place, acquiring his name "Scooter," and going up to people.

"He charmed everyone," Kennon said.

She recognized then that this cat really liked people and "his disability was not a handicap for him."

Kennon wanted to learn what it took to make Scooter into a therapy cat so she took him to HealthSouth Harmarville Rehabilitation Hospital in Indiana Township about 12 years ago.

Karen Hinkes of Monroeville, who was a recreation therapist at the former HealthSouth was skeptical. "The cat was not declawed and would be around strange people. Dr. Betsy just knew. She had the utmost faith."

Kennon reasoned, "I've seen a lot of cats in my career, and this is not your average cat."

To gauge Scooter's therapy cat potential, Hinkes had Kennon take the cat to visit a woman who suffered a massive stroke. "She wasn't responding to people and had her eyes shut," Hinkes said.

With Scooter, Hinkes patted the woman on the arm and said she had a cat and then positioned Scooter in the crux of the patient's arm. "That cat snuggled up to the woman who then opened up her eyes and started to look around."

Kennon brought Scooter around to visit the patient more as she progressed.

After more visits, it became apparent that Scooter didn't have the typical skittish behavior of cats, that he possessed an unusual calmness, especially around ill people. "It's like he knows," Hinkes said.

Also while at Harmarville, Kennon happened upon a woman waiting to get fitted for a prosthetic leg who was feeling down. "She took a look at Scooter wheeling around and said, 'If he can do it, I can do it, too.' "

Over the years, Kennon has had long-standing weekly visits to Platinum Ridge and other facilities. They have stopped by hospices.

"He's a busy boy," she said. But not forever as Scooter might be retiring eventually because he is slowing down.

"It has brought so much to my life," Kennon said. "I think I get more of it than the patients."

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary at 724-226-4691, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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