Originally published in the Journal Inquirer Tuesday, July 15, 2014
By Kristen J. Tsetsi
It’s easy to feel like a third wheel when in the exam room with a cat and Dr. Letrisa Miller, identified on her website as a recognized authority on feline medicine and surgery and owner of Connecticut Feline Medicine and Surgery, which celebrated a two-year anniversary July 3.
Once the exam room door closes, the principal communication is not between the practice’s sole doctor and the human who brought the cat to the clinic, but between doctor and patient—or, doctor and cat.
The human companion, either sitting on a wide waiting bench or standing at a window with a view of the intersection of Deming and Avery Streets in Manchester, Conn., will notice that one of Miller’s introductory gestures when meeting a new cat is a brief series of slow blinks.
“She’s extremely knowledgeable about behavior and the ways of the cat, and she can kind of speak to them in their language,” said technician Jodie Voigt, who along with the clinic’s three veterinary assistants insists Miller had to have been a cat in a previous life. “Like doing blinks. Even just doing that can make all the difference with a cat that’s really afraid, because you’re telling them, ‘I’m not going to eat you. I’m here as your friend.’”
That a cat would fear being eaten can seem strange because we tend to think of them as predators, as neighborhood mouse and bird and chipmunk killers. But Miller said they’re actually prey animals, subject to raptor, dog, coyote, fox, and human attacks (“Anything that’s big and eats meat,” Miller said), which is why many don’t respond well to being confined by hugs, even if they will tolerate them from people they trust. It’s also why they’re often masters at masking—or at the very least, not announcing—discomfort or pain.
Cats’ instinctive behavior to hide what’s wrong makes them that much more interesting to Miller, who owned a feline-only practice in Oklahoma for ten years before moving to Connecticut.
“I like a challenge, and I really like solving mysteries. Cats pretend everything is OK, so you have to be very good at reading subtle signs,” she said.
You also have to be interested enough to want to learn to read the signs. It’s a quality Miller has that makes her work well with her patients, but it’s one few animal doctors possess, which has made finding help a challenge.
Miller said that when she began working with cats, there was little in the books pertaining specifically to feline medicine, which even neglected to acknowledge that cats can have food allergies. So she’s used her training as a scientist to help animals for whom comparatively little research has been done. Feline medicine, Miller said, is still far behind K-9 and equine medicine, and even trails behind bovine medicine.
Her continuing study, of which 20 hours a year are required and the additional 50 she strives for are voluntary, has made hers a go-to clinic for people whose cats aren’t improving after visits to standard veterinary hospitals. In fact, much of the clinic’s early business after opening in July 2012 came from people in desperate need of second or third opinions.
“I see a lot more complex cases, I think, than most general practices do,” said Miller, who does orthopedics and the other board-certified medicine practiced by specialists who are often called to visit standard animal hospitals, but who don’t hold full time hours there. “I was seeing all of the sickest of the sick for the first year, but that’s starting to even out a bit. Once I see cats for a year or two, they tend to get over onto the well side and stay there.”
To encourage veterinary hospitals to refer cats to her when needed, her policy is to not see a patient for anything other than the referred medical issue for at least a year.
A recent nominee for the American Veterinary Medical Foundation’s America’s Favorite Veterinarian, Miller treats about 1400 patients at 95 Avery St. Once church offices, the building (at a location so ideal she passed up a job offer in London to buy it) houses three exam rooms and reception on the upper level, and in-patient care with hospital kennels, dentistry, a treatment area, operating room, and handicapped access on the lower level.
Most animal hospital exam rooms feature a few standard items: exam platform, swabbing instruments, possibly dog biscuits. Somewhat less standard is a 10-watt Companion Laser CTL, which Miller purchased for her practice after testing the device on her own back at a conference. She has since seen the laser therapy system, designed to treat post-surgical pain and many chronic conditions, relieve at least three cats of nearly constant discomfort and increase their mobility (this writer’s cat included).
Miller has also used Chinese herbal medication and Western herbal medicine, massage, and other physical therapy on her feline patients. If it works, she said, she’ll use it. Her philosophy is that there is something new to learn every day and that “what was right yesterday might not be right today.”
This philosophy, combined with the staff’s treatment of each cat as an individual and as if it were their own—“Depending on the patient’s individual needs, it could be a 15 minute visit or it could be an hour and a half visit,” said veterinary assistant Christine French—contributes in large part to Miller being the practice’s only doctor.
Other contributors: a high standard of practice and an expectation that the doctor will separate from the cookie-cutter model of treatment.
“I worked at an animal hospital for 10 years before coming here, so I thought coming here I might just be able to slip into the routine of things,” French said. “But it’s totally different information than what I had been doing for 10 years.”
French, Voigt, and veterinary assistants Summer Gray and Melissa Johnson share front desk space with a calico named Bella, who has her own chair. (Voigt once sat on a low, plastic stool to work at the computer rather than move Bella.) Monster, a tabby, is another clinic resident. Each member of the staff has more than one cat at home. They all agree on the kind of doctor they would like to see working with Miller.
“There are some people who don’t even make the 20 hours per year of minimum continuing study, so those are not the type of people who would do well here,” Voigt said.
“They should be motivated to learn,” Miller said.
In short, then, they should be passionate, motivated and curious.
Said Miller, “Very catlike.”