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A Day In The Life Of A Feline Veterinarian
The only constant at this cat clinic is the doctor and staff's loving care

By Clifton Barnes

Murphy, a 20-pound Maine Coon, sits on the office counter surrounded by toys he's strewn about during the night and watches the front door as Carol Tice, DVM, walks through it at 7:30 a.m. She's driven 35 minutes from her home in Durham, N.C. Dr. Tice greets Murphy using a playful voice that's a cross between Olive Oyl and Betty Boop. Murphy responds in cat talk.

Murphy, whose face is covered with long, snow-white whiskers, lives at the clinic and probably thinks he's seen it all. But he's about to experience a day like none other for him – a day he'd rather not see again.

The Cat Clinic of Cary in North Carolina is already in full swing. In the back, technician Melony Hampton does pre-lab work. Priscilla Peele, a part-timer in charge of animal care and grooming, restocks supplies and prepares Timmy and Sampson for their baths. Kip Lopez, who hopes to get into North Carolina State 's veterinary school in neighboring Raleigh , pitches in anywhere he can. And Laura Slack, the office manager, sits at her desk, facing the all-glass storefront, answering phone calls and juggling the day's schedule – a rough blueprint of how the day will actually unfold.

Dr. Tice is part owner and sole veterinarian of this feline-only facility. A 1991 graduate of the New York State College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University in Ithaca , New York , Dr. Tice previously worked in a traditional veterinary office in Durham , but her love of cats led her to open the feline clinic in 1995. In fact, her entire staff is made up of cat lovers, as is evidenced by the 23 cats the six employees own.

The clinic is located in a shopping strip called Parkway Pointe. Shoppers leaving the grocery store next door and people waiting for lunch or dinner at a nearby pizza parlor often drop in to visit Murphy.

Before clients begin to arrive for appointments, Dr. Tice checks the cats that have been boarded overnight. In the back room, where the sick cats are off-limits to Murphy, she examines a gray shorthair named Hendrick who has bald spots on this head and face. Melony steadies the wary cat as he lets out a growl. Dr. Tice believes the hair loss is a result of an allergy and jots a note to get the owner's permission to give Hendrick a steroid shot.

Dr. Tice checks in with Laura at the front desk to review the day's schedule. Walking back to the sick bay, Dr. Tice encourages Murphy to play in his tunnel tube by running alongside it with a long, plastic stick. Murphy is unusually slow to the take, but eventually lumbers through.

While the other office workers scurry about, Dr. Tice and Melony examine Nick, who is sitting on the normally cold steel examining table. “I like to put a towel under the cats to make them more comfortable,” Melony says. Priscilla walks by and tries to steady Nick's nerves with baby talk. In fact, Dr. Tice suspects it is nerves that are causing Nick's diarrhea. Also adding to the problem could be a change in diet when Nick was boarded the previous week. Dr. Tice obtains a fecal sample, then starts the testing procedure. Melony weighs Nick. “Ten pounds,” she announces as Dr. Tice writes. She hoists Nick into one of 12 holding cages in the hallway next to a small surgery room.

Dr. Tice, Priscilla and Melony go into a cleanup mode that resembles a keystone cops routine, except they've done it so many times that they don't run into each other.

It's barely past 8 a.m. when Melony glances at her Garfield watch. She is expecting two cats, Chutney and Tinsel, to come in for a teeth cleaning at 8:30.

In the meantime, Dr. Tice attempts to check the liver and kidney function of 3-year-old Molly before the cat's scheduled declaw surgery. As Melony opens the cage, Molly releases a deafening scream. Two or three other cats join in a yowling crescendo.

A quick glance at Murphy in the reception area shows a cool cat who has hear it all before - or maybe a kitty that doesn't feel well.

"Declawing an older cat is not my favorite job," Dr. Tice shouts over the hissing, which grows louder. "Cover her head," she instructs. A staffer tries to grab the cat. "She's a pistol," Dr. Tice says, throwing up her hands. "This ain't gonna happen. Put her back. We've going to have to knock her down."

Kip comes into the room and informs Dr. Tice when the owners of various cats say they will arrive at the clinic. Dr. Tice again modifies her schedule.

Soon thereafter, Dr. Tice examines Kasha, a Siamese who visits often because of gum disease. "She's a sweet kitty," Dr. Tice says as Kasha is moved to the exame table. "You can see a little redness in the back of her mouth. Her mouth gets really sore and she can't eat. She comes in every six weeks or so." The doctor announces what everyone in the room already knows - that's Kasha's breath smells bad. She needs a teeth cleaning soon. For now, she'll be rehydrated with fluids and receive a shot of steroids and antibiotics.

It's almost 9 a.m. and the two dental appointments haven't arrived. Dr. Tice normally has other appointments between 9 and 10:30 a.m. so she's feeling a little antsy. Chutney and Tinsel finally show up, but now they have to wait as the day's first patient, Belle, shows up.

Belle first came to the clinic several months earlier when she was adopted as a kitten. Today she's in for a booster shot. "Most healthy cats just come in once a year for their checkups and vaccines." says Dr. Tice, who has close to 3,000 clients on her roster. "Some cats come in six to eight times a year. We have one family that spent $5,000 last year. They have four cats and they travel extensively."

Dr. Tice is now ready to see Sylvester, who is on time for her 9:15 a.m. appointment. Sylvester had previously come in with a suspicious lump that ran from her belly to one of legs. An antibiotic didn't help and a culture sample showed no cancer. Today, Dr. Tice wants to obtain a culture from another part of the lump. Dr. Tices asks the owner for permission to sedate Sylvester if the cat becomes too restless, then takes Sylvester back to the exam room. Murphy watches with interest but doesn't follow.

"Are you OK Murphy?" Dr. Tice asks. Murphy doesn't answer, which Dr. Tice finds unusual. He usually meows back.

Even with Melony holding her, Sylvester goes wild on the table before Dr. Tice has a chance to insert the needle. The concerned owner, hearing the commotion in the back, sends word through Laura not to hurt Sylvester.

Dr. Tice had already made the decision to sedate Sylvester. Melony places the cat in an aquariumlike contraption, close the lid and pumps anesthetic gas through a tube into the enclosed space. Melony keeps a close eye on Sylvester to make sure she is anesthetized, but not for too long. Sylvester turns out to be a "faker," which means the cat appears to be sedated, but actually isn't. Finally, Sylvester succumbs to the anesthesia and Dr. Tice quickly goes to work. She takes two samples from the lump, one for in-office tests andone to be sent to a special lab in New York. In minutes, the procedure is over and Melony begins to wake up Sylvester, whose tongue is sticking out of her mouth.

After securing the samples, Dr. Tice determines what tests need to be run at the New York laboratory and what they will cost the owner. "This is the part where I'm not so good," she says. "They don't teach you business in veterinary school. I can keep my costs down a little for the owner, but there's nothing I can do about the lab costs." Meanwhile, Melony is still trying to awaken Sylvester by rolling her around, patting her stomach and rubbing her head aggressively. As a precaution, Dr. Tice checks the heart. The cat is fine. (Article continued above.)

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A low growl announces that Sylvester is coming out of the anesthesia. Dr. Tice goes to the waiting area to talk to Sylvester's owner and explains the bill in detail. "I didn't want you to go into shock," she says. Murphy places himself between the two women talking. Turning to the cat, Dr. Tice says lovingly, "Could you get in the way a little more honey?"

As 10 a.m. approaches, Timmy and Sampson, the cats that were bathed, are taken out of driers and weighed. "Whenever cats come in for any reason, we weigh them," Dr. Tice says. "It's a good point of reference."

Dr. Tice decides that Molly's declaw surgery can be put off until later in the day. "We usually try to do declaws early in the day, especially if they're kittens, and take the bandages off the same day," Dr. Tice says. "But we won't get to Molly until later today." Since Molly is bigger and older, Dr. Tice expects that removing the bandages will be more painful and she will need an anesthetic. Molly will stay overnight.

A new client has been waiting with her kitten, Snugs. "Well, aren't you pretty?" Dr. Tice says to Snugs. The cat is gray and black with white on her sides and belly. Unfortunately, Snugs has been spending a lot of time on her belly because she has no balance. Snugs awkwardly tries to walk on the exam room floor. Dr. Tice examines the cat and asks the owner detailed questions. Snugs' pupils are different sizes and she has a high fever. "Something profoundly neurological is going on here," Dr. Tice announces. She suspects it might be toxoplasmosis, a condition that would be treatable. Most of the other possibilities, including feline infectious peritonitis, would not.

Tears well up in the young woman's eyes as she tells Dr. Tice how much her two girls love Snugs and how her family has limited funds. Dr. Tice says a complete blood screening is necessary to confirm the diagnosis, but they could start with a conservative approach of antibiotics. The woman is quiet. "You didn't expect all this when you came in did you?" Dr. Tice asks gently.

She draws blood from the cat in case Snugs' owner decides she wants to send the blood sample to the New York lab to be tested. She also gives Snugs fluids and takes a stool sample. The whole emotional ordeal lasts one hour and 20 minutes. Dr. Tice doesn't charge for the consultation.

The unusual case tightens the day's schedule, but doesn't throw anything off except Dr. Tice's lunch break, which is reduced to fives minutes and a liquid diet drink.

Meanwhile, Melony finishes the second teeth cleaning. Dr. Tice gets the OK from Hendrick's owner to administer steroids for his allergy. And the owners of several cats that can go home have been called.

Dr. Tice notices Murphy's litter box is disheveled. Murphy, who has been on a high fiber diet, has become constipated. "Looks like Murphy's been straining and passing mucous," she says. "Guess what? Murphy's going to have to have an enema." The normally gregarious Murphy hides. Dr. Tice hunts him down, picks him up and asks, "Are you having a hard time baby?"

Dr. Tice senses Murphy's nervousness as she pushes through the door to the back. "He knows it's not good when he comes back here," she says. She gives the enema as Murphy lets out a sound like he's calling someone named "Earrrlll!" She then places Murphy in a boarding cage.

The staff begins to prepare for Molly's dreaded declaw surgery, but suddenly the mood changes.

"Yea!" one staffer yells out. "Oh my god!" says another. Dr. Tice rushes back to see Murphy and finds the enema has worked. "You smell good!" she says with a laugh.

Murphy is cleaned up and dried off as Melony and Dr. Tice begin the declawing work on Molly. In the exam room, they give Molly a shot that temporarily paralyzes her. The surgery takes about five minutes. Dr. Tice clips off the last bone rather than cut it out with a scalpel blade as some veterinarians do. She inserts surgical glue and carefully squeezes the skin together. As the shot begins to wear off, Molly receives a pain killer. The disoriented cat tries to instigate teh hissing, howling chorus again but is relegated to the back storage area so she won't disturb the other cats. "It's normal fear," Dr. Tice explains. "But it tears me up because that cat is in pain and I did it."

Next, just past 2 p.m., a regular visitor named Riva has a physical exam and gets her nail caps replaced. The doctor glues on the last tip, which covers a claw.

Rachel McNeil, another receptionist, arrives at the front desk at 2:30 p.m. She announces that the husband of the woman who brought in Snugs has called. Dr. Tice is on the pone with him for about 20 minutes. They decide to get the full workup on Snugs. Dr. Tices takes a soda break and reviews paperwork.

It's nearing 3:30 p.m. and Dr. Tice begins to change theh bandages on a lethargic black-and-white 7-year-old beauty named Dunkin. Dr. Tice is waiting on test results to find out why Dunkin won't eat. Dunkin has been receiving his nutrition through a gastronomy tube that leads directly into the stomach. The cat yelps as the bandages pull his hair. Dr. Tice is pleased to find that the site is clean and redresses the area.

The remainder of the afternoon is relatively routine with Dr. Tice seeing Buster, Barsac, Marguax, Spike and Joey for annual exams and vaccines.

After 5 p.m., the front desk becomes busy as owners retrieve their cats and the courier service picks up the day's blood samples.

At about 5:30 p.m., the day's loudest hissing comes from the storage area. Dr. Tice runs back to discover that the air compressor used for dental cleaning has broken. While that brings a frown to her face, a few minutes later, Dr. Tice has to smile as she returns her final call of the day to a woman who thinks her cat's tail is getting longer.

Like most days in the life of this feline veterinarian, it was a day with a full range of human emotions. The steady force may well be a Maine Coon named Murphy.

Murphy hops onto Dunkin's carrier and sits there triumphantly. "You know, Murphy looks pretty good," Dr. Tice says. "I love that cat."

Barnes, an award-winning writer and editor, lives with two loving tabby American Shorthairs, Heels and Missy.