Interview with a Local Cat Veterinarian

Dr. Shelly Knudsen grew up without pets, her mother being allergic to them. That changed when she grew up and moved into a place of her own. A friend of hers had briefly tried his hand at breeding ferrets, which prompted Shelly to talk with Chris, her boyfriend (now husband), about these curious and mischievous creatures. He agreed that a ferret would be a fun pet to have. After they married, Shelly and her husband decided to add more ferrets to their group of three.

When they heard about a Kansas ferret shelter that was trying to place five ferrets together, Shelly and Chris contacted the shelter. Although the group of five ferrets had already been placed, the shelter was also looking to re-home a group of three. Shelly and Chris drove down to Kansas to see the ferrets. Not only did they adopt the trio, but they were so impressed by the shelter that they decided to start their own Nebraska.

For three years, from around 1996-1999, Shelley ran the shelter out of her home in Hastings.  The local vets were supportive but knew little about ferret medicine, and so Shelley and they learned together.  When one of her ferrets was diagnosed with lymphoma and Shelley discovered that the recommended treatment could not be locally provided, she wondered: “Why don’t I just do it myself?” The next day she drove to the University of Nebraska-Kearney and immediately enrolled in veterinary medicine.

In 2000, the World Veterinary Association initiated the annual World Veterinary Day on the last Saturday of April to bring attention to the ways our animal doctors help make the world a better place. We all know that vets care for pets, and some also see livestock, but vets also serve their communities in the areas of education and public health. I recently interviewed Dr. Knudsen from All-Feline Hospital about her life as a veterinarian. If you’ve never thanked your vet, consider doing so on World Veterinary Day.

Dr. Knudsen and her daughter
Dr. Knudsen and her daughter

ALLISON: What was your veterinary education like?

DR. KNUDSEN: I had already had one year of undergrad at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, so I took one more years of very concentrated classes at University of Nebraska -Kearney, and was lucky enough to be accepted into Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine the first year I applied. I moved to Manhattan, Kansas, and took about 21-23 credit hours per semester which translated into about 9-10 hours of class and labs per day with several hours of studying each night for four years. My husband was still in Hastings, so we alternated going to see each other each weekend. Vet school was intensive classes for the first three years, and clinicals for about 8-12 hours per day (depending on the rotation) for the last year, starting in the summer right after junior year finished.

ALLISON: What does a typical day at your job look like?

DR. KNUDSEN: I come in around 9 a.m. and go through charts on my desk that have accumulated from the previous evening and that morning. Some are phone calls or emails to clients, some are refills or test results to be interpreted. After that I go and look at the medical drop offs for the day, which can range from two cats to 12 cats. At noon, my appointments start and run until 4 p.m. Any time I have in between appointments are spent inhaling lunch and working on charts. After my appointments are over at 4, I then spend the next one to two hours working on charts that have accumulated on my desk over the course of the day. Fridays are my surgery days, so on those days I come in around 9 and alternate between surgeries, dental procedures, medical cases, and charts until I am done, which might be anywhere from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.

ALLISON: What is the riskiest part of your job?

DR. KNUDSEN: Working with cats, probably the riskiest part is getting bitten. Most cats are terrified at the vet, and that manifests in fight, flight, or freeze. For the cats that are fight, they think they are fighting for their life, and they can be dangerous. I have excellent staff who can restrain them with minimal damage to themselves (using protective leather gloves and masks when necessary). I have very fast reflexes, and I do not blame the cats at all, they are just scared and defending themselves. Thankfully, while cat bites can cause serious infection, they do not typically result in hospitalization, which can happen with dogs and larger animals.

ALLISON: What is the saddest part of your job?

DR. KNUDSEN: The saddest part is when I have a cat who is very sick who might be able to be helped, but the owner just does not have the funds to do what is needed, or when I lose a patient that I have become very attached to. There is a condition described in veterinary medicine called compassion fatigue: It does wear away at you when you have sobbing clients and you can’t do anything for them, either because you just can’t fix the cat, or because you can’t give away everything, and so you can’t help them.

ALLISON: What keeps you going in the tough times?

DR. KNUDSEN: The knowledge that I will learn from each cat, and use it to go on to help the next cat. The satisfaction that happens when I am able to save a cat’s life that would otherwise not have survived, or increase quality of life to a cat that did not previously have a quality of life.

ALLISON: Describe a happy moment on your job.

DR. KNUDSEN: My favorite part of my job is when I see a second opinion for a medical issue that I am able to figure out and help the cat when someone else was not able to. That being said, we all have different learning experiences, so I have no problem if one of my clients wants to seek a second opinion as maybe someone else has seen something before that I haven’t and can help the cat.

ALLISON: Do you have your own pets? Tell me about them.

DR. KNUDSEN: I have three cats: two nine-month-olds and a 2.5 year old that I adopted from The Cat House about four months ago when my previous cat of 16 years passed away from a combination of kidney failure and inflammatory bowel disease. While I prefer older cats, I do have a 4-year-old daughter who really wanted a kitten, so we compromised with two kittens for her and the oldest cat that would tolerate a young child from The Cat House.

ALLISON: What is something that the public doesn’t know about vets but should?

DR. KNUDSEN: We do our absolute best that we can for each animal because we do care. That being said, we do have families that we want to get home to, and we can only see so many patients in one day without compromising our level of care to our other patients. So every time that we squeeze in one more patient or phone call over an already packed full day, it might take away from the time that we are able to spend on another patient that is already here, and it most definitely will result in our leaving here later and having less time to spend with our families at home. While it may be a once in a lifetime emergency for a pet owner, it is a daily occurrence for us, and while we really want to be able to help absolutely everyone, at some point, to keep our own sanity and to not compromise the level of care to our other patients that are already here, we do on occasion have to refer clients to another clinic, or leave a phone call sitting on our desk for a few days until we have the time to return it. We don’t like to have to do it, but it does happen, and it does not mean that we care any less for our patients or clients, it just means that we are human and we can only do so much in a period of time.

ALLISON: What basic cat care do you see most neglected?

DR. KNUDSEN: I don’t think there is any one primary basic cat care that is neglected, but there are several things that we do see that result in disease that could have been prevented by changing things. We see lots of dental disease in cats that could be prevented or minimized by dental treats, teeth brushing, and ultrasonic teeth cleaning when recommended. We see lots of cats who are overweight or obese that develop weight related diseases that might not happen with better quality food, more wet food and less dry food, or monitoring calorie intake better. We see cats that come in with urinary issues because they are being fed low quality cheaper foods (although for some cats, the more expensive foods can cause issues as well). We see cats with chronic intestinal issues that are contributed to by feeding lower quality foods because they are less expensive.

ALLISON: What is one easy way pet owners can enrich the lives of their cats?

DR. KNUDSEN: Increase stimulation. Play with them with toys as much as possible, make the home into a cat friendly activity area with cat trees, empty shelves cats can use as steps, windows with cat perches in front of the window, bird and squirrel feeders outside the window, training cats with clickers and treats to give them something to work for, puzzle feeders to make cats work for their food, other animals that cats can play with, taking cats outside on a leash to let them enjoy the stimulation of outside. Anything that will give the cats something to do other than just sitting on a couch or bed all day will enrich their lives.

ALLISON: What one medical or technical advancement in the future do you most want?

DR. KNUDSEN: Star Trek medicine! I want to be able to run a device over a patient and have it tell me exactly what is wrong, or be able to see the inner workings of a cat as if I were looking at it with my own eyes without having to do surgery on a cat.

ALLISON: What ways can a person help homeless cats?

DR. KNUDSEN: Donate. Volunteer. Spay/Neuter. Adopt. There are multiple animal rescue organizations that just don’t have the funds or the people to do what they want to do. TNR is a great program, but it costs money to spay and neuter all the cats. Low cost spay/neuter programs are great, but they still cost money to help offset the costs of the veterinarians doing the surgeries. It takes people to care for the cats who are in shelters, to trap the feral cats to spay and neuter them, to go out and help feed colony cats. And finally, spay and neuter the cats you have, and when you are ready for another cat, adopt a cat. For every cat who has kittens when it could have been prevented, maybe those kittens will find a home, but that is 5 more cats in a shelter who will likely be euthanized because those homes were already taken by the kittens. There are so many homeless cats who would be so happy to have a loving home.

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