The Cat-Only Practice

There is something magical about cat-only clinics. Many of them have very highly trained doctors and staff who are true cat lovers and who know what it takes to keep cats at their healthiest and cat owners willing to keep coming back for regular care.

By Emily Singler

Dedicated Staff, Gentle Handling, and Careful Communication Are Key to Success

The cat-only practice: a place of quiet and tranquility, where high-quality medicine is the norm, cats are always well-behaved, and clients are always compliant. This is an exaggeration, of course, as no practice is completely immune to the many challenges of practicing veterinary medicine. However, there is often something magical about cat-only clinics. Many of them have very highly trained doctors and staff who are true cat lovers and who know what it takes to keep cats at their healthiest and cat owners who are willing to keep coming back for regular care. None of these are unique to cat-only practices, but they are a big part of helping cat-only practices thrive and grow.

Cat-only practices are still relatively uncommon in the United States. While the total number of cat-only practices is not known, there are currently only 46 AAHA-accredited cat-only practices in the United States. Feline specialists are even less common. As of this writing, there are only 84 active American Board of Veterinary Practitioners (ABVP)-certified feline practitioners nationwide, with only four at AAHA-accredited practices. Many additional professionals are members of the American College of Feline Practitioners, some of which have the Cat Friendly Practice certification (and/or a Cat Friendly Veterinarian/Veterinary Professional/Advocate certification), but these are not limited to cat-only practices.

While the total number of cat-only practices is not known, there are currently only 46 AAHA-accredited cat-only practices in the country.

Trends spoke with three cat-only veterinarians to learn more about their practices, the benefits of cat-only clinics, and how they maintain and grow their practices. Among their stories, several themes repeated themselves: having a dedicated and highly trained staff, using gentle handling techniques, and careful communication with clients.

Cassie Quest

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Cassie Quest, DVM, has been the chief of staff at the Cat Hospital of Orlando in Orlando, Florida, for seven years. She reports that while she originally started out in small animal general practice, she was fortunate to learn from an ABVP-certified feline practitioner on the finer points of feline-specific medicine techniques and handling. She remembers having a strong interest in feline medicine even in veterinary school.

“There are far more homeless cats than dogs,” she explains, “and therefore they may be more prone to stress-related diseases from being in a human household.” Quest enjoys seeing how “just changing a small way that the veterinary team approaches the cat patient can change everything.” She saw that cats see the world differently from other species, and she knew that was where she wanted to focus her work.

While some veterinary professionals might assume that fractious patients might be the biggest challenge in cat-only practice, Quest argues that it isn’t the biggest obstacle for her. While she does see stressed cats regularly, Quest describes the biggest hurdle to be managing the stress that the owner feels from the moment they attempt to get their cat in the carrier, drive to the clinic, move through the appointment, and then watch the cat’s behavior changes at home afterward. Utilizing Fear Free techniques can minimize stress for both the cat and their owner, which greatly increases the likelihood of them returning regularly for further care. A big part of gentle handling involves having an “amazing feline friendly staff,” she explains, that maintains a quiet, calm environment and encourages cats to willingly participate in their care as opposed to being forced.

A client talking to a veterinarian holding her cat at a cat-only practice

Another challenge Quest reports is instructing cat owners as to the proper ways to medicate, feed, and enrich their cats’ lives. Many cat owners come in with their own preconceived notions of how to best accomplish these tasks and finding firm but diplomatic ways to redirect them can be difficult. Quest’s strategies to work successfully with cat owners include putting herself in their shoes. As a self-described “cat mom,” she spends a lot of time trying to understand the relationship between each owner and their cat to help inform her treatment plan. She uses examples of her cats’ behaviors to help clients see how to address their own cats’ behavioral concerns. She asks owners about how easy certain husbandry tasks are and shares examples of how she struggles with certain tasks with her own cats.

For those looking to grow their cat-only practice, Quest recommends finding a niche “that you as a practicing veterinarian feel the strongest in and feel you can create good outcomes.” She has chosen to focus on dentistry and behavior, and she sees a lot of referrals in these areas from both clients and other veterinarians.

She has been pleasantly surprised with the dedication of some of her cat-owning clients. This is borne out with the number of cats she sees living into their twenties with a good quality of life, and the opportunities she has had to “crack the code on difficult or unusual cases” in her patients.

Elizabeth J. Colleran

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Elizabeth J. Colleran, DVM, MS, DABVP (Feline), the owner of Chico Hospital for Cats in Chico, California, is a spokesperson for the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) Cat Friendly Practice initiative. She points out the benefits to both cat owners and cats who visit a cat-only practice.

“Caregivers love that their beloved cats are not as frightened and can cope better in a feline-only practice,” Colleran explains. Cats tend to be less stressed in an environment that is dog-free, and therefore quieter (no barking), less smelly, and just less chaotic in general. She adds that the gentle handling techniques and lower-stress environment also translate to fewer workplace injuries and therefore fewer workers’ compensation claims, a plus for both employees and employer.

Managing a cat-only practice is not without its challenges, according to Colleran. “The community has to be big enough to support a cat-only practice,” she cautions, since not every cat owner will seek out this type of practice. Not all potential investors and financers will see the benefits of a cat-only hospital either, so writing a good business plan and finding understanding creditors can be very important. It can also be challenging to hire support staff who are willing to learn and embrace the gentle handling techniques that help a cat-only practice to thrive. Not all potential employees will be on board with this, even if they have years of previous experience working in a veterinary practice.

A cat being gently restrained at a cat-only practice

Once the practice is established and staffed, it can still be challenging to maintain a steady client base and to convince cat owners to return for regular veterinary care. Who among us hasn’t heard from a client about a cat who hasn’t needed to go to the vet for 10 years (or ever) because they have been “healthy?” This is still a concern for many cat-only practices. Colleran describes a multifaceted approach to this problem: working regularly to improve reminder systems, aiming to prebook appointments in the clinic whenever possible, and prioritizing a positive experience for both cat and owner. “The more successful our interactions are with cats and caregivers,” she said, “the more willing they are to come back.”

“Caregivers love that their beloved cats are not as frightened and can cope better in a feline-only practice.”

—Elizabeth J. Colleran, DVM, MS, DABVP (Feline)

Colleran sees a lot of growth through word of mouth from happy clients who are surprised by their experience when they first visit the practice. She also provides community outreach by teaching “cat classes.” The practice maintains a website and seeks reviews from happy clients, but she places a heavy emphasis on in-person relationship building, which is necessary to create trust and practice high-quality medicine.

Colleran has some great advice for those wishing to start or grow their cat-only practice. “Instill your values” around gentle handling, showing compassion, communicating well and forming strong relationships, and work to maintain these high standards. She also suggests creating an education plan for each member of the hospital team based on the AAFP Cat Friendly Practice program. This can increase knowledge of feline medicine, improve handling skills, and hone your communication skills.

Nicole Martell-Moran

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Nicole Martell-Moran, DVM, MPH, DABVP (Feline), works as a cat specialist associate veterinarian for the Feline Medical Center in Houston, Texas. She started out treating companion animals and exotic species for her first few years and then transitioned to a cat-only practice, where she served as chief of staff for four years. A self-described cat person, Martell-Moran had always felt like small animal veterinarians and veterinary medical education focused more on dogs than on cats. Once she made cats the focus of her medical and surgical skills, she found feline behavior and personalities to be more “intuitive and predictable” than those of dogs.

Just as others have said, Martell-Moran finds misinformation among clients to be a major challenge in cat-only practice. She describes how a few “loud online voices…with their conspiracy theories and exaggerated anecdotes” that can sometimes be held up as truth and drown out the vast medical knowledge and experience of veterinary professionals. She particularly sees this type of misinformation related to nutrition, vaccines, and humane euthanasia. Other challenges that she faces include trying to educate clients on the potential secondary effects of declawing cats, which was once considered to be a commonplace procedure. Just as many other veterinary teams do, she also encounters clients who do not wish to pursue diagnostics and/or treatment for their pet for any number of reasons.

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To tackle these challenges, Martell-Moran combats misinformation with information from reputable sources to help clients understand why she makes the recommendations that she does. She even designed her own study to document associations between declawing and sequelae such as long-term pain and adverse behavior in cats. She also tries to always offer clients options in terms of diagnostic and treatment plans, recognizing that at some point it becomes the client’s responsibility to decide which course of action they will take.

In addition to gentle handling techniques championed by the AAFP Cat Friendly Practice program, Martell-Moran utilizes soothing music, feline facial pheromones, a towel warmer, treats and catnip, and previsit pharmaceuticals such as gabapentin.

Once the practice is established and staffed, it can still be challenging to maintain a steady client base and to convince cat owners to return for regular veterinary care.

Martell-Moran finds it helpful to remember who the practice’s ideal client is and cater to them. For her clinic, their ideal client is “any client that has a concern for their cat and is willing to listen to advice with a kind and open mind.” This type of client is usually very astute and interested in preventive care. Since her practice is located near NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, many of their clients value “data, details, and documentation.”

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When asked about strategies to help grow her practice, Martell-Moran emphasizes the importance of offering a spectrum of care options. While one path may be “ideal,” it may not be the one that makes the most sense for a particular client. Allowing clients the chance to choose what works best for them can increase trust and bonding to the practice, making them more likely to be a long-term client who recommends the practice to others. She also recommends having a niche to focus on (such as ultrasound and endoscopy, her practice’s specialty areas). Many new clients have been referred to the practice because of their specialty expertise in these areas.

Further Reading:

ABVP certification is another step that Martell-Moran strongly recommends. This training provides “next-level understanding of cats and the diseases they experience,” Martell-Moran explains. “It wasn’t easy, but I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

For those veterinary professionals who want to focus on cats and their unique needs, who embrace gentle handling techniques, and who value proactive client communication, working in a cat-only hospital may be the right fit.

Photo credits: CatLane/iStock via Getty Images Plus, Photo courtesy of Cassie Quest, DVM, Ivan-balvan/iStock via Getty Images Plus, pyotr021/iStock via Getty Images Plus, Photo courtesy of Elizabeth J. Colleran, DVM, MS, DABVP (Feline), ©AAHA/Robin Taylor, AnnaStills/iStock via Getty Images Plus, Photo courtesy of Nicole Martell-Moran, DVM, MPH, DABVP (Feline), ©AAHA/Shannon Yahoudy

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