The knock on the door sent Bibi racing in circles, yipping and barking as only a little dog can.

Sky, a parakeet, sought safer ground on the side of her cage as Lita Rosita Smith headed for the door, stopping every few steps as Bibi twirled around her.

It was the deliveryman from Meals on Wheels, bringing the hot meal that the 87-year-old San Jose woman needs to get by. But that's not why Bibi was so excited. Without fail, whoever brings the food also has a few treats for Bibi, too.

Every weekday for the past 11 years, Health Trust Meals on Wheels has delivered about 300 hot meals daily to seniors and others in Santa Clara County who are too ill to go out. But now, the group has started including pet food in its deliveries, after realizing that some seniors, concerned about their animals' wellbeing had been feeding their meals to their pets instead.

For many of the seniors, it's a choice between paying for medication, food for themselves or food for their pets.

"This is something Meals on Wheels all over the country have noticed," said Libby Combs, an Americorps-VISTA member who is working for Meals on Wheels at the Health Trust. "About 25 percent of our clients have pets."

Called PALS -- Pets and their Loving Seniors -- the new service provides enough pet food for a month at a time. Meals on Wheels officials are hoping that, just like with the regular Meals on Wheels program, good Samaritans will sponsor each senior's pet and pay for the food.

Ideally, program officials say, people will sponsor meals for the seniors as well as for their pets -- and volunteer to deliver them.

It costs $2,500 a year to sponsor hot meals for one senior, said Renee Kellythorne, director of Meals on Wheels. That includes cold meals delivered on Friday that recipients can stretch into sandwiches on Saturday and Sunday. It only costs about $150 a year to pay for pet food because most of their pets are cats or small dogs.

"Fifty-one of our clients have no friends or family nearby," Kellythorne said. "Sometimes, the Meals on Wheels driver is the only person they see all day."

The average age of the people served is 82. Three clients are more than 100 years old. The whole program is based on donations.

Combs, who started the PALS program, is looking to someday team up with rescue groups to pair seniors with pets who need homes.

"They do better with pets," she said. "It gives them a reason to get up. There's just nothing better for them."

Smith, Bibi and Sky's owner, moved to California from her native New York 10 years ago to be closer to her son. But she can't imagine life without her pets. Smith's vision is deteriorating and she's had both hips replaced, making it hard to walk far, but her two companions keep her laughing and smiling most of the time.

Except for when she misses New York.

"I still cry because I miss New York," she said. "I miss the museums."

She's had Sky since Mother's Day two years ago and Bibi, a Maltese, will turn 4 on Thursday.

"Sky teases him and he tries to go after her and she flies back to the cage," Smith said. "If I'm watching TV and Bibi is lying with me, she'll sit on his head or his back."

The three are quite a sight when Bibi rolls around in Smith's lap and Sky is perched on the back of her chair.

"I don't believe in caged animals," she said, petting Bibi. Having them as companions "is wonderful."

Smith is diabetic and receives special meals from Meals on Wheels that will not interfere with her condition. Her son does some shopping for her on Saturdays but receiving daily hot meals has added much to her life.

"I don't know what I'd do without Meals on Wheels," she said.

Neither does Bibi.

IF YOU'RE INTERESTED

Meals on Wheels is looking for volunteer drivers to deliver meals and pet food and financial sponsors "to help a low-income senior keep their companion animal." Checks may be mailed to the Health Trust Meals on Wheels, 1701 S. Bascom Ave., Campbell, CA 95008 or you can donate with a credit card online at http:/preview.entango.com/donate/334cWzwVCDs. For more information, call 408-961-9866.

Contact Linda Goldston at lgoldston@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5862.