Who Works at Your Cat’s Veterinary Office?

When you take your cat to the vet, there may be a number of people working there, other than the veterinarian. These individuals can include a veterinary assistant and a veterinary technician, among others. Don’t know the difference? Below, veterinarian Trisha Joyce of New York City Veterinary Specialists explains the roles that these individuals play in the typical office of an animal doctor.

Veterinary Receptionist
There typically is a difference between the receptionist at your veterinarian’s office and the one at your dentist’s, for example. The former likely has a love of animals and some degree of on-the-job training that allows him or her to determine whether your pet needs immediate care. Veterinarians often choose their receptionists carefully, as they are the first to greet every patient that walks in the door. “They are the folks that get your information, find out what’s wrong, and decide if the animal needs immediate care,” says Joyce. They do not need a higher degree, but often use the job as a stepping-stone in order to gain experience and move up in the field.

Veterinary Assistant
Veterinary assistants are trained by veterinarians on the handling and restraint of animals. “Almost anything a veterinarian does with an animal requires two people,” says Joyce. “You can’t place a catheter or draw blood by yourself.” Veterinary assistants help veterinarians and veterinary technicians to keep an animal still during a variety of procedures. They are also often tasked with the housekeeping of the office. “They walk animals, clean cages, do laundry,” says Joyce.

Veterinary assistants receive on-the-job training and are not required to have any particular level of formal education. Some are happy to remain assistants, while others take the job as a means to an end. It can be a good a way to build a resume before applying to veterinary school, admission to which is very competitive.

Veterinary Technician
Veterinary technicians, or vet techs, come in two varieties: licensed and non-licensed. Licensed veterinary technicians spend two years in school and come out with associate’s degrees. After finishing school, they must pass a credentialing exam in order to obtain their license. “It’s very specialized study,” explains Joyce. “They get a good understanding of disease and are trained in doing invasive procedures like inserting catheters.”

Non-licensed veterinary technicians are trained on the job and their skill level varies according to experience. “You can have a fabulous one who’s been working for 25 years and really knows her stuff, or a high school kid who just likes animals,” says Joyce. She acknowledges that the latter can be less than desirable, and notes that it pays to ask your veterinarian whether the techs in her office are licensed, especially if they are assisting in complicated procedures involving anesthesia.

Veterinary Technologist
A veterinary technologist attends a four-year college, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in veterinary technology. Despite this difference in training, they perform the same duties as the technicians in the clinic. “We group technicians and technologists all into one category,” says Joyce. “If you’re going to a four-year college and decide you’re interested in working with animals, it’s a degree you might choose -- though not too many colleges actually offer it. What it really comes down to in the office is still licensed versus non-licensed.”

After completing a bachelor’s degree, a veterinary student attends four more years of school to earn a degree in veterinary medicine. The fourth year is generally spent working in a hospital or medical practice. Veterinarians are trained in basic science like anatomy and physiology as well as other care like nutrition, diagnostics, surgery and dentistry. It is increasingly common for veterinarians to continue training for at least a year after graduation, and more than that if they want to specialize. “You can spend as long doing your training as you would in med school,” says Joyce.

Veterinary Trend: Cat-only Clinics

Dr. Kelly Wright, a veterinarian and the co-owner of The Cat Clinic of Orange County in Costa Mesa, Calif., doesn’t experience daily barking, panting or dog smells in her cat-only clinic. As a result, the stress levels of the cats that come in and out on a regular basis are “two or three notches down,” according to Wright.

“Cats can get very nervous and stressed at a vet visit,” agrees Dr. Arnold Plotnick, a veterinarian and the owner of the Manhattan Cat Specialists in New York City. “If a cat is in a carrier near a German shepherd in the waiting room, it can be so frazzled by the time it gets to the exam room that it can be impossible to deal with. But here it’s peaceful and quiet. They don’t see, hear or smell dogs.”

A Unique Option for Cat Owners
There are no statistics available on how many cat-only clinics have been established across the country, but Internet searches reveal a healthy number of them in most U.S. states. Like the Cat Clinic of Orange County and the Manhattan Cat Specialists, many were designed from the start to be cat-specific. There are no oversized scales, the kennels are consistent rather than varying in size, and the drug inventory is specialized for cat care. “We have a very dedicated staff that cares very much about cats,” says Plotnick. “We’re all cat lovers and I think it shows in our work.”

Plotnick strives to go beyond standard veterinary care, offering wellness programs tailored to four different age groups and providing extensive preventive health services. The Manhattan and Orange County clinics both also offer grooming and boarding services. The Orange County clinic has large-windowed enclosures that overlook the building’s large lobby, as well as multilevel “townhomes” -- complete with four-poster beds and skylights -- for the most discriminating cats.

Benefits of Cat-only Clinics
Plotnick and Wright note that their decisions to focus only on cats should in no way detract from the quality of care at general, all-species veterinary clinics. A good veterinarian is a good veterinarian, no matter how many kinds of animals he or she treats. For midnight emergencies, a general veterinary hospital will likely remain your only option, but even doctors at general hospitals say that cat-only clinics can have distinct advantages.

“You get the benefit of a vet who has decided to make themselves an expert at this one animal,” says Dr. Trisha Joyce, an emergency veterinarian at New York City Veterinary Specialists. “Also, it probably means that they are better able to invest more in equipment and medical supplies specific to the illnesses cats get. Cats aren't small dogs, and sometimes the drug options stocked by a general hospital are geared more to dogs.”

Ironically, there’s also a human element that gets addressed, according to Dr. Katy Nelson, a Virginia-based veterinarian. “Cat owners and dog owners are very different creatures in and of themselves,” she says. “So, having a facility that caters to the needs of ‘cat people’ could be very advantageous in dealing with this clientele.”

Plotnick concurs, noting that his clients tend to be “very attuned” and “super-devoted” to their cats. While his decision to focus exclusively on cats inevitably cut a large population of animals out of his business model, it’s a decision he gladly made.

“During my post-grad career, I always had an affinity for cats and became known as a person who enjoyed feline medicine and was good with cats,” he says. “I was comfortable with them and found their diseases and illnesses particularly interesting. When I opened my practice, it seemed natural to do it as cat-specific. And I think it’s worked out very well.”

How to Know Your Cat’s Vet Needs

It’s not always easy to know when your cat should see a veterinarian, in part because cats are masterful at disguising illnesses and injuries. Whether you turn to books, the Internet, your personal experience or veterinarians, be sure to look out for certain health signs.

Cat Health Resources
The first step for most cat owners is noticing something’s amiss, whether your pet is eating less, urinating outside the litter box or sneezing. Although it’s natural to try to figure out what’s going on before you make that veterinary appointment, first and foremost, just call your veterinarian, says Dr. Annie Price, owner of Ormewood Animal Hospital in Atlanta.

Educating yourself about cat behavior and the symptoms of illness is helpful as well. The American Association of Feline Practitioners offers good advice at CatVets.com and HealthyCatsForLife.com. Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine also provides useful information about cat health at www.Vet.Cornell.edu . The university offers phone consultations three days a week, but each consultation costs $55. Plus, it may take up to 48 hours from the time you place the initial call until your consultation.

Whether you read cat health books or take first aid classes for pet owners, educating yourself can help you become more attuned to health indicators that are easy to overlook. “Because cat owners are around their cats daily, subtle changes or gradual changes can be missed,” says Dr. Joanne  Gaines, owner of Ridgeview Animal Hospital in Omaha, Neb. “Increases in drinking and urination and weight loss are the most common gradual changes we see, and those changes can be caused by thyroid disease, kidney or liver disease or diabetes, most commonly.”

It’s best to let your veterinarian help you determine when a visit is in order, but Price and Gaines offer these helpful guides:

  • Keep a watchful eye. If your cat expels an occasional hairball, it’s probably not significant, says Price. “One hairball, a little regurgitation of food -- it happens,” she says. A few sneezes here and there may be something to monitor, but should not require a veterinary visit. Cats occasionally will have a runny eye that should resolve itself. If your cat snoozes more after an active day, it is probably just tired. Your cat might not eat as enthusiastically once in a while, but note if it’s becoming a pattern of behavior.
  • Schedule an appointment. Continued vomiting or diarrhea, poor grooming habits, a regular eye discharge or a squinting eye, increased water intake, increased urination, a runny nose and regular sneezing are among the indicators that your cat should see a veterinarian, say Gaines and Price. Sick cats will often sleep or hide more, notes Price. She particularly cautions against mistaking urinating outside the litter box as spiteful behavior. “A lot of people assume it’s behavioral or revenge, but that can mean a simple urinary tract infection, or your cat could be developing kidney problems or metabolic problems,” says Price.

If your cat becomes more vocal or begins grooming less, schedule an exam. “Anything subtle and different is something to take note of,” says Price. A change in personality, such as aggressive behavior, warrants a veterinary appointment.

  • Get your cat to the veterinarian immediately. “Emergency situations include straining to urinate, trouble breathing, bleeding, severe lethargy and most things relating to the eyes,” says Gaines. If you feel your cat’s health situation is urgent, don’t hesitate. Rapid breathing should be checked immediately as well, advises Price. “If your cat appears to be suffering a seizure, get it to the veterinarian right away,” she cautions.

Scheduling regular veterinary visits is the safest way to monitor your cat’s health. “Physical exams on a regular basis are so important. I always recommend once a year. There’s so much we can see just in a physical, tip of the nose to the tip of the tail,” says Price.

Top 10 Questions for Your Cat’s Veterinarian

You most likely prepare questions for your own doctor’s appointments, so why not do the same for your cat? “If you are coming in for your cat’s annual wellness visit or a sick visit, write down your questions ahead of time,” says Dr. Elizabeth A. Dole, a veterinarian who practices at Stack Veterinary Hospital in Syracuse, N.Y.

Questions to Ask
Most veterinarians start your cat’s exam by asking you questions to rule out any serious feline diseases. They may inquire whether your cat has been vomiting, had diarrhea or shown any change in thirst, urination or appetite. Excessive thirst or urination, for example, could be signs of feline diabetes or kidney disease.

After fielding those queries, it’s your turn to do the questioning. Here is a list of the top 10 questions to ask.

1. Is my cat at the appropriate weight?
Obesity is a growing concern in pets, as it is in people. “It has all sorts of health implications for the heart, joints, liver and kidneys,” says Dr. Bonnie Beaver, former president of the American Veterinary Medical Association and a veterinary professor at Texas A&M University.

2. How are my cat’s teeth and gums?
Tooth deterioration, tartar buildup and gum disease get worse as an animal gets older. “Infections of the gums can spread to other areas of the body,” explains Beaver. It’s important that kittens get used to having their mouths cleaned to allow you to brush their teeth and remove tartar buildup.

3. When should my cat have blood work done?
Blood tests can pick up certain congenital ailments, such as kidney disease. Some veterinarians take a baseline screening on a pet’s first visit, but it’s a good idea to have a screening done on a senior cat, generally after age 10, says Dole.

4. What should I feed my cat and/or kitten?

Feed your cat food that carries the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) seal for complete and balanced nutrition, say experts. For kittens, it’s important to feed them canned and dry foods; however, they may need more moisture in their diet as they age, or if they develop kidney disease or bladder stones, says Dole.

5. Does my cat need exercise?

A regular program of exercise and environmental enrichment is important, particularly for indoor cats. Have your cats chase toys up and down stairs, or use a laser or dream catcher to interact with them.

6. How often should I bring my pet in?

Pet owners usually get in the habit of bringing cats in for an annual checkup, although sometimes that stretches to 16 months between visits. Senior cats require biannual visits. “It’s best if we can catch things early so we can intervene and help prolong and improve the quality of a pet’s life,” says Dole.

7. What are the latest vaccine recommendations?

Vaccinations have saved millions of cats’ lives. The latest recommendation is that the last round of cat vaccines should be administered after a kitten is 16 weeks old, according to Dole. It’s also critical to get any follow-up booster shots.

8. How can I administer my cat’s medication properly?

If your veterinarian prescribes medicine for your cat, you should always ask for clarification on the directions, says Beaver. “If you give your pet medication the wrong way, it doesn’t help them and can potentially have serious consequences.”

9. Is generic medication available?

Prescription medications for cats can be as expensive as those for humans. Ask your veterinarian if generics are available. If they are, find out the difference -- if any -- compared to brand-name products. While generics exist, veterinarians may not carry all varieties, although they usually try to provide economical options.

10. How much does it cost?

Don’t be afraid to question your veterinarian’s recommendation, particularly if it calls for an expensive surgical procedure. “You should also ask whether there are alternatives,” says Dole. And don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion.

Veterinary Education Goes Global

As a veterinary student in 2006, Brian DiGangi found himself in a setting quite unlike the cozy University of Florida campus he was used to. He was in the town of Tunkas, Mexico, caring for cats and dogs in an open-air, MASH-style clinic. At night, he slept in a hammock.

"It's always an eye-opening experience to spend a significant amount of time in another country, but this program was my first experience using my veterinary skills in such a setting," recalls Dr. DiGangi. "We learned how to provide high-quality medical care without all the 'bells and whistles' of the university setting. In fact, we usually didn't even have electricity or running water."

The Global Factor
DiGangi was participating in Project Yucatan, a student exchange opportunity that's part of the University of Florida's certificate program in international veterinary medicine. Started in 2003, the program is part of a growing trend in veterinary medicine to give students a global perspective on their profession.

A paper recently published in the journal Preventive Veterinary Medicine provides an overview of the relatively new program and its goals, which can be lofty. "Animal medicine is not much different than people medicine," says Amy Stone, D.V.M., an assistant professor at University of Florida and co-author of the paper. "If the animals in a community are well cared for, it is likely that so are the humans. If we can teach people how to care for animals, their food supplies, homes and workplaces will be safer.” She adds, “If we can fight disease together with the human medical professionals, then we can stop outbreaks, pandemics and possibly bioterrorism. If we go and extend a hand through medicine, it helps our relationships with other cultures."

Health Benefits for Pets and Vets
The University of Florida program is not just for people who want to do missionary-style work abroad. Dr. Stone was part of a program in Honduras that focused on zoonotic diseases, or diseases that pass from animals to people.

"These folks were getting parasites from their pets and they were at risk of disease," she says. She believes there are many parts of the U.S. where the education about zoonotic diseases is lacking. Intensive training like she experienced in Honduras can therefore become valuable when dealing with cat and dog owners back home.

Skills Better Learned Abroad
Dr. Stone additionally points out that training in a country where the standard of care is lower can actually give students a unique set of skills they might not get at a university back home. "Not everyone [in the U.S.] has the resources to care for their pets in the way that most veterinarians would advise," she says. “The no-frills nature of international projects gives the students the opportunity to practice what I call 'street medicine.' They learn how to prioritize and deal with the situation that they are given.”

Many veterinarians are all too familiar with sad cases where pet owners come in with a troubled cat that they can't afford to have treated. Having a bag of tricks and quick fixes learned in countries like Mexico or Cuba is better than denying care for lack of funds.

Help for Less Fortunate Felines
Then there are those whose international experiences inspire them to come home and care for the least fortunate of our feline friends. That's exactly what happened to Dr. DiGangi, now a D.V.M. specializing in shelter medicine as a University of Florida resident. The stray cats he cares for that come in off the streets of Gainesville aren't all that different from the semi-domesticated cats he tended to in Tunkas.

"All the animals that came through our clinic were brought there by their owners,” he shares. “That said, many of the cats were not as accustomed to handling as pets in the United States, and most of them probably lived exclusively outdoors." These cats usually require even more care, since outdoor living comes with many perils, including more exposure to pathogens.

Dr. DiGangi believes that receiving training abroad helps veterinarians to focus on working with the underserved animals in our country as well as their caretakers. “My participation in Project Yucatan was one of my first experiences working with such a population and undoubtedly played a role in my current career path," he says.