Kitty Corner

No dogs allowed at this all-feline veterinary hospital and boarding facility

by Keith Morrill

Affectionately Cats Denise Kessler, DVM, recently opened a second location for Affectionately Cats, the veterinary practice she established in 1993 in Charlotte. The new space is on Commerce Street in Williston. Her tortie friend is Spice Mickel.

Cats are not small dogs.

That fact might seem painfully obvious, but, according to veterinarian Denise Kessler, the idea has been slow to catch on, with pet owners and veterinarians alike. Catch on, it has, though. It’s led to single-animal practices that focus on the health and treatment of one speciess.

That’s where Kessler comes in: She’s the owner and head vet at Affectionately Cats, a strictly feline veterinary hospital and boarding facility with locations in Charlotte and Williston.

Cat owners have plenty to rejoice about. “It provides better care, definitely,” Kessler says, speaking of the benefits of a one-species practice. “It’s really gratifying to all of us when we have somebody come in and say, ‘We’re so glad you’re here. This is just so much easier.’ They can tell we know cats very well.”

Still, it’s the sort of thing people have a hard time wrapping their paws around at first. “‘What? All you do is cats?’” she says, imitating a common reaction she receives. “There are still a lot of people that don’t even know.” That’s because it’s hard for them to imagine that anyone could start a veterinary practice that excludes humanity’s longtime best friend, the canine.

But, according to Kessler, times have changed. Fido’s place has been usurped by his feline nemesis, which has taken up a new place in the hearts and homes of Americans. According to the Humane Society of the United States, it is more likely these days to find a greater percentage of cats than dogs in American homes.

This is great news for Kessler and her staff, who opened the second location in Williston in May.

Affectionately Cats A little over 30 percent of Affectionately Cats’ clients live in or near Williston, which led Kessler to open the second location there. Kelly Wagner is a veterinary technician.

All one has to do is step inside to realize this is no ordinary vet hospital. The biggest difference from a mixed practice is the noise level. It’s quiet. No whimpering, no barking, no clicking nails. To one side is a kennel of virtual cat apartments, designed with a cat’s physiology in mind, and with plenty of kitty toys. It’s something of a feline paradise.

“Cats are stressed enough already,” Kessler says of the typical vet visit. “Most of them live inside. Once a year they get put into a box, then into the car to the vet’s office — and to have dogs barking when they get there, it creates a natural reaction of, ‘Escape!’”

At Affectionately Cats, business is booming because of the absence of dogs. In fact, Kessler is so busy, she has to talk as she works, moving about the lab with samples, and, true to the name of the practice, stopping to purr affectionate phrases to her small, furry patients.

“I knew it was the right name, because it puts right out there what we want,” she says, and refers to the logo, a simple yet powerful line-drawing of a person cradling a cat.

If somebody had told a young Denise Kessler that she would someday be managing her own feline practice, she wouldn’t have believed it, she says. She might have even become a little bit angry. That happened when a college mate made a similar suggestion.

She was still in vet school at Michigan State, in her hometown of East Lansing, and had every intention of being a large-animal practitioner. “Denise, you’d be a great small-animal vet,” her friend said, in all seriousness. Kessler says her reaction was immediate.

“I was offended! Every fiber of my being was working on all of this knowledge of horses that I grew up with — I gave riding lessons, I had a small barn and boarded them. Cats were great, but I grew up with horses.” She says she was the tomboy in her family. “I was the outdoors, woodsy animal lover.” Even back then she couldn’t stand to see an animal suffer, she says.

Choosing veterinary medicine as a course of study wasn’t much of a surprise, especially considering her neighborhood in East Lansing. “I grew up right across the street from Michigan State’s veterinary research facility, and I rode my pony everywhere. I’m sure I bothered them immensely. I was very influenced as a child by veterinary medicine. So when I got to college, that’s what I did.”

When she was in her senior year of veterinary school, she recalls, “we started going back to the big research farms near my home to do our practical stuff. I remember at the dairy farms, this one old guy — his name was Erv — he said, ‘I know you, don’t I!’

“‘Yeah, I used to ride that pony around here.’

“‘He said, ‘That was you!?’”

Kessler never doubted where she was headed after graduation. From the age of 18, she had volunteered each summer for Tom Stewie, a large-animal vet in Barre, whom she met through her sister. Stewie took her under his wing, and for eight summers they rode around in his truck caring for local horses and cows.

Affectionately Cats According to the Humane Society of the United States, cats now outnumber dogs in American homes. Janet Campbell (left) is boarding facilities manager. Tammy Pudlo is a vet technician and hospital manager. Their cuddly friends are MeMe and Mickey Walker.

She landed a job with a vet in Randolph, then worked in Grand Isle for a year. The jump to cats was the twist she never saw coming. When the first feline practice in the state, Cats Vermont, opened up, in 1992, Kessler was offered the position of head vet by its Canadian owner. She immediately fell in love with the work.

“I worked there four days a week, and he would come down one day a week, so it was good exposure; I was running the business.”

Realizing she had her own ideas about how to run a practice, in 1993, Kessler established Affectionately Cats in Charlotte. She set up in a small, visible, historical building on U.S. 7 renovated solely for the purpose of housing her practice.

Even for a community as small as Charlotte, business was brisk. She took on more staff to meet the increasing demand. Another veterinarian, Dr. Elizabeth Berger, joined her in 1994, and more recently, in 2005, Dr. Emily Crawford was added to the team. Supporting them is a staff of dedicated nurses and personnel.

“I have worked for Affectionately Cats for almost 13 years — almost my entire veterinary career,” says Berger. “We both enjoy not only working with the cats, but also the bond we see form between people and their cats.”

It wasn’t long before the place was practically bursting at the seams. “We were practicing in about a third of our current space,” Kessler says of the Charlotte building. “Honestly, we were bumping elbows all the time.” That crunch led Kessler to the sister site in Williston. Now the staff is dividing its time between both places, enjoying the newfound wiggle room and the chance to reach new clients.

Tops on their list is transitioning clientele to the Williston site. It’s not that the Charlotte site is shutting down — just the opposite. Rather, it’s that between 30 percent and 40 percent of them would find Williston closer, says Kessler.

Opening a new site does, however, present challenges. In a technology-heavy era, it means purchasing enough equipment so that both sites can continue with the same standard of care.

“To provide a full-service facility, we have to have so much. We can’t just have a bag of tools anymore.” says Kessler. “The standard of care has risen. Now we have ultrasound, we have telemedicine. The advances are big, and providing the services becomes much more expensive, much more financially challenging.”

The practice sees about 3,000 cats a year. Between the two locations, she has space to board up to 52 cats.

It’s a tricky balancing act she has to perform. “Our premise is compassionate and excellent care, and those I cannot compromise. It’s very challenging to find ways that we can be efficient, and not compromise the very things that we work for,” she says. “It’s not worth working if we can’t have time for compassion and care.”

Kessler takes every opportunity to gush about the excellence of her staff. Making sure that they receive adequate compensation considering their years of education is a primary concern for her. She has 14 employees, and has no doubt that each one is indispensable to the operations at Affectionately Cats.

She mentions nurses as an example. In addition to helping with general care practices, they’re in charge when it comes to discharging pets back to their owners. The discharging process is more than a simple handover; it involves educating owners on practices to improve relationships between owner and pet, and for that, the nurses are her teachers. They’re almost like family, she says, and it’s important that they’re taken care of.

“I love what I do. I absolutely love it!” she exclaims. There’s no feeling quite like helping a feline and its family spend a happier life together. •