Feline clinic celebrates 30 years

The fourth feline-only clinic in the United States is celebrating its 30th year in business.

And after 30 years, the Feline Medical Clinic, 5801 N.E. 105th Ave. in Vancouver, remains the only veterinary hospital in Vancouver dedicated to the care of cats.

The clinic was founded in 1977 by retired veterinarian Caroline Engle, and it became one of the first groups inducted into the American Animal Hospital Association two years later.

Still run entirely by women, current owners Carrie Burhenn and Cathy King bought the practice in 1994. It has grown from one to four doctors, who see 20 to 30 cats each day.

Burhenn has been at the clinic for 17 years – it was her first job out of veterinary school, which she attended at Oregon State University.

Since then, the biggest change in the clinic has been the rise of specialized medicine for cats in general, she said.

In the past, there were limited services veterinarians could offer cat owners because the technology was not available. Many times, cats with incurable ailments were put to sleep.

Now, it’s not uncommon for cats to have ultrasounds, MRIs, CT scans or undergo cancer treatment services. As a result, the overall health of cats has improved and incurable diseases are managed, allowing cats a good quality of life, Burhenn said.

“That’s really what’s important,” she said. “We know more and there are better treatments.”

Burhenn and King have the animal treatment aspect of the business under control, but learning to run the business has been a challenge.

“They teach you absolutely nothing about running a business in vet school,” Burhenn said. “We’re not specialists in business law, management or employee issues.”

The solution, they thought, was to bring in an office manager, who then embezzled $90,000 from the business in 2004.

“We almost lost the business and 15 people were going to be out of work,” Burhenn said.

King was able to contact the companies the clinic owed money and arranged for extended credit. The owners opted to miss paychecks and some employees volunteered to hold off cashing paychecks until the clinic got back on its feet.

“It says worlds about our employees,” Burhenn said.

The clinic had safeguards against misconduct, but it further split up management so that no one person has control over any single area of running the clinic.

Now the clinic is stable and is the staff has grown to 19 people. Burhenn was not aware of the clinic’s average revenues.

Eventually, as the business grows, Burhenn said she would like to add another manager.

Burhenn’s advice for fellow veterinarians is simple and straightforward: get business training.

“It hurts when you don’t know resources for how to conduct background checks or accounting or small business management,” she said. “It’s much easier to (learn) when you’re in school, so take advantage of that.”

Currently, the clinic is in the midst of a remodel, with upgraded paint and flooring but eventually, Burhenn said she would like to offer more services.

Ideally, this would include quality lodging for cats with ailments whose owners are out of town.

And, “if we had all the money in the world,” she would like to expand the building. With four doctors, the 3,000-square-foot building is at capacity. Doctors Burhenn and King own the property, so expansion would be the way to go, she said.

After 30 years, many of the clinic’s clients are regulars, but Burhenn said it still attracts new clients.

In 17 years in business, Burhenn said she’s learned that most people are alike.

“We all have the same fears, and I feel like I’m helping them understand a little bit more about the world, and learn things about themselves,” she said.  

Although she never planned to settle in Vancouver, Burhenn has also discovered that it is a lovely place to do business.

“There are good specialists and emergency clinics to refer to, and you can’t go too wrong by any of the vets in town,” she said. “You don’t always know where life’s going to take you, but sometimes you end up in the place you were meant to be.”