“Cat’s only?” and “ How can that be?” are frequent questions I am asked when I meet people and tell them I am a veterinarian who only works on cats. Then I’m told, “I’ve never heard of such a thing before,” and “Your business can run without dogs?”
Over 22 years ago, when I made the leap from dog-and-cat practitioner to felines only, the wave of veterinary specialization was just starting to build a lot of momentum. There were a couple of feline-only practices in the U.S. in the 70’s, but by the 90’s there were a couple of hundred. Now there are more than 400 cat practices, with most located in larger population centers.
Aside from being a feline practitioner, I chose to pursue specialty board certification in feline practice. I am one of 63 veterinarians in the U.S. who are American Board of Veterinary Practitioner feline practice diplomates. To become a diplomate, you must write intensive case reports, pass a challenging exam, attend lots of continuing-education seminars, and be recommended by other specialists. It is a lot of work. Once you become a diplomate, you must recertify every 10 years. This is a lot of work, too!
Veterinary medical students still have to learn about many species in school, with most of the emphasis on pets and farm animals. Surprisingly, some of my best memories from vet school involved working with the large animals that I would never lay hands on again. By senior year in most veterinary programs, students have the option to take electives in certain disciplines and get more training in things in which they have more interest.
I didn’t know that feline only practices existed when I was a vet student, but that is certainly not the case today. At my practice we host fourth-year student externs, primarily from the Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona. I enjoy teaching these students about feline internal medicine and helping them work with cats and understand them better. I know it makes them more comfortable and knowledgeable about dealing with the special needs of cats, and hopefully they will share this with others during their working careers.
Some students know that they want to pursue feline medicine exclusively when they graduate vet school. I am fortunate to have two new veterinary associates who knew this and started dedicating their lives to cats prior to becoming veterinarians. Dr. Jessica Brown had a dog and several cats growing up, but her experiences with her 19-yea- old cat with many illnesses and a job working at a cat practice prior to vet school solidified her intent to specifically help cats as a career. Dr. Chelsea Kiser grew up with only cats as pets. When she found a job working at a feline practice in Idaho as an undergraduate student, she loved the environment and knew it was the right thing for her. These outstanding women both won American Association of Feline Practitioner Awards as students, and they plan to become board certified in feline practice when they are eligible.
Mentoring is extremely important in the development of new veterinarians, no matter which species they work on. Mentoring allows training and supervised experience. I feel strongly that a veterinarian’s first job can make or break his or her career and confidence. New associates at my practice work alongside me and my other, more experienced associates very closely. We help them develop into the great kitty doctors we know they are.
Anyone who works with a lot of cats knows that medically they are not small dogs. The CATylst Council, a coalition of organizations that promotes feline wellness and recognition, reports that there are 81.7 million owned cats in the U.S., compared with 72 million dogs. The last major U.S. pet census, conducted in 2011 by the American Veterinary Medical Association, found that about 30.4 percent of American households owned cats.
Cats in general receive less health care than dogs; there are many reasons for this. One of the most common is that cat owners feel badly when their cat becomes stressed about going to the vet. Feline practitioners understand this, and we work hard to try to make a vet visit as pleasant as possible for cats and their owners. The American Association of Feline Practitioners has implemented a program called “Cat Friendly Practices” with training that allows any vet clinic to become better equipped to work with cats and be deemed cat-friendly.
A 2013 news release about a study by Bayer Animal Health and the association of feline practitioners reported, “While veterinarians are nearly equally likely to own a dog or cat … 48 percent prefer dogs, while only 17 percent prefer cats.” The study confirmed a preference for dog over cat patients by veterinarians, who indicated that dogs are easier to work with than cats during wellness exams (90 percent vs. 65 percent); cats are more challenging to diagnose than dogs (57 percent vs. 34 percent); and dogs actually enjoy visiting the clinic (79 percent vs. 15 percent).” This leads to the conclusion that not all veterinarians are cat people.
Feline health care continues to improve with more veterinary awareness of cats’ special needs and more feline training opportunities for veterinarians. I am excited about helping the next generation of veterinarians care more about cats and work well with them.
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