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Friday, December 30, 2005

New treatment center helps pets get back on their paws

Matt Villano, Special to The Chronicle, San Francisco

Friday, December 30, 2005

It's cat hour in a tiny room in a facility near Caltrain in Menlo Park, which means a fat and furry feline named Rachel is on the treadmill again.

Rachel, like many obese humans, is under doctor's orders to lose weight, and she needs to spend a total of one hour burning kitty calories to do it. This, however, is no ordinary treadmill; it is in an enclosed structure filled with 2 inches of fresh water to provide extra resistance, and we all know how much cats hate water.

Welcome to life at Scout's House, a new animal physical rehabilitation therapy center kitty-corner to Kepler's bookstore on Santa Cruz Avenue. The center, launched in May by Lisa Stahr, quickly has established itself as one of the most popular and respected places for owners to bring their dogs and cats after the animals experience a major trauma.

"Whatever doctors can do for humans through physical therapy, we can do for animals here," says Stahr, whose background is in copywriting for area high-tech firms. "Our goal is to make the whole process of getting back to health a little easier."

Scout's House most commonly helps pets get back on their feet after a major surgery. The facility also treats animals who have suffered from accidents, strokes or other brain-damaging incidents, as well as elderly animals feeling the ravages of time. In rare instances, the center even helps cats like Rachel shed some pounds, or dogs who are just plain lazy and won't do much but just lie around.

Veterinarians oversee all of these treatments. When Stahr launched the center, she partnered with Dr. Janet Lowery, a vet at the Mid-Peninsula Animal Hospital next door. She also inked a deal with Dr. Janet Dunn, a veterinarian who specializes in acupuncture. One of these doctors participates in every introductory exam, and is on site at all times -- a state requirement for facilities of this kind.

In addition to these experts, Scout's House also employs a handful of nurses, and Krista Johnson, a certified physical therapist for humans who is working toward certification in animal husbandry. Johnson, a calming woman who drives over "the hill'' every day from El Grenada (San Mateo County), says the keys to her work are treats.

"You can't really tell animals to do what you want," she quips. "Cookies here do wonders."

Standard treatment begins with stretching, massage or electro-stimulation, eventually followed by more strenuous work such as the treadmill. For pets with trouble balancing or bum limbs, the facility has "wobble-boards" and small weights to strengthen leg muscles. For animals with open wounds, there's laser therapy, which helps the cuts heal quicker.

During a recent cat hour, Johnson hunched over a giant, peanut-shaped ball and stretched out the brittle limbs of Comiskey, an orange tabby who has been paralyzed since kittenhood. Every now and again, the cat unleashed a meow of disgust at being poked and prodded, but offered little other protest.

Owner Amanda Materne, who sits in on every session, watched proudly, and helped Johnson secure the animal. Materne says she's not sure if her cat will ever walk again, but says that physical rehabilitation therapy definitely has made a huge difference in the animal's comfort level.

"Coming here definitely has given him better range of motion," says Materne, who lives in San Carlos. "From my perspective, it's pretty amazing to see."

Sessions like Comiskey's cost $100 per hour, and cost slightly less when bought in blocks of 10. The center also offers 30-minute sessions for $50. Before an animal can come for regular training sessions, the pet must undergo a 90-minute initial exam that costs $150.

These prices are comparable to other Bay Area animal physical rehabilitation therapy centers for animals. Some of these facilities include Dr. Sam's in Marin, Healing Touch in San Jose, and the Canine Rehabilitation Center in Walnut Creek. Sole Companion, which was a popular center in Oakland for years, shut down earlier this year.

Before it closed, Sole Companion was instrumental in the creation of Scout's House. In 2002, Stahr's dog, Scout, contracted distemper and could barely walk. Stahr found rehabilitation therapy there. The treatment worked wonders, but Scout died of kidney failure in 2004. Today, Stahr says Scout's House is a testament to her.

"Physical rehabilitation therapy prolonged Scout's life," she says. "If we can do the same for other pets, we've done our job."

Scout's House is at 506 Santa Cruz Ave., Menlo Park. (650) 328-1430; www.scoutshouse.com.

E-mail comments to penfriday@sfchronicle.com.


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