Posted May 30, 2020 by Dr. Dale Rubenstein.
On May 10, 2020, after 39 years as a veterinarian and 34 years at A Cat Clinic, I decided to put away my stethoscope and officially retire from our practice. I did not intend to do so quite this soon. But with all the restrictions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, and given the fact I am in the age group considered “at risk”, it seemed the smartest thing to do. With time now to reflect, I wanted to share one last blog post on my journey as a veterinarian and the history of A Cat Clinic.
Getting a foot in the door
Growing up in Montgomery County, I didn’t know any veterinarians who were women. Becoming one myself didn’t occur to me until my younger sister decided to pursue a career in veterinary medicine. I knew that I needed to get some experience in order to gain admission to veterinary school, so I wrote to every veterinarian in the Montgomery County and Northern Virginia phone books. I received this response from a local clinic who thought “Dale Rubenstein” had to be a man:
My mother saved this letter, framed it, and gave it to me when I graduated from veterinary school.
Women were not particularly encouraged; I remember being asked at my veterinary school interview if I had a boyfriend, and what he thought about my career choice. Topping this, several years later at a meeting, a female veterinarian about 5 years older than me who was married when applying to veterinary college had been asked what form of birth control she was using!
Becoming a feline veterinarian
After graduating, I first worked in Salisbury, MD in a rural mixed practice with farm animals. I came back to Montgomery County, did a year at one of the first emergency hospitals in the area, and then was a “relief vet,” which is like being a substitute teacher. I worked at two feline practices in northern VA and realized I really enjoyed taking care of cats and that was what I wanted to do.
Opening A Cat Clinic
There were no feline-only practices in Montgomery County, so I opened A Cat Clinic at 13507 Clopper Road in 1986. I named it following my mother’s recommendation that “A” would come before “The” in the all-important phone book listing.
Construction of a veterinary clinic came with many obstacles, most importantly getting a Special Exception zoning permission from Montgomery County. Fortunately, as a veterinarian just starting out, this was a much simpler process in a shopping center in 1985 than when we moved to our current location.
Our first location was a long, narrow rectangle that was only 1000 square feet. We made of the most of the small space, and long-time clients will remember our tiny reception area and only 2 exam rooms.
The early years at 13507 Clopper Rd
A Cat Clinic opened on June 16, 1986. Building a practice takes time, and business was slow at the beginning. We only had one or two employees working along with the doctor every day. Often my mother, a good sport although not really an animal lover, would help out. And my saintly husband Loring was sometimes pressed into service as well. Besides fully supporting my dream, he helped me do emergency surgery on two occasions.
Advertising used to just be the local newspaper and yellow pages. Germantown was growing but small, so they were happy to write about a new business. The following article appeared in the Germantown Gazette about six weeks after we opened.
During our first winter of 1986-87, we had 2 heavy snowstorms within a week. But the cats had to be fed and cared for, one way or another. Back then we only had limited boarding, so when a heavy snow storm was forecast, I brought cats and their supplies home with me. Zoey, a patient who was 20 years old and had hypertension, once spent two weeks at my house due to back-to-back storms.
For so many of us, trying to “balance” personal and professional life is a huge challenge. Loring made sure I had time to build the clinic and take care of patients the only way I knew how. Before we got married he was visiting construction sites; I missed our wedding rehearsal because I couldn’t get away. In addition to assisting me with emergency surgeries, he has driven with me to the clinic at 3 AM for a false alarm a week after moving to the current building and spent a lovely summer Saturday mopping up the basement after it flooded. Most importantly, he helped with meals, homework, and understood that Saturdays I worked and Sundays were paperwork.
I began working part time once our two children were born. In reality, it meant that I could spend more time with the kids during the day, but I often stayed late at night to work. We realized it was going to be difficult when my assistant Adele brought paychecks for signing and some X-rays to look at while I was in the hospital after Sarah was born.
The “new” A Cat Clinic at 14200 Clopper Rd
After 15 years, I wanted more space, more natural light especially for boarders, and safer parking. I wrote letters to several people in the area with homes that had enough room for parking and a location that I thought had a chance of getting the Special Exception Zoning. My timing was lucky. The homeowners of our current location were ready to sell but hadn’t listed the property yet. Obtaining zoning took almost two years, but I am nothing if not persistent. After a year of construction we moved in, and since then we’ve loved seeing that while cats are not thrilled to be out of their own home, they are much calmer when there are windows to look out of.
A Cat Clinic in the Community
Veterinarians are teachers, and knowing how to respectfully care for cats is something I always wanted to “spread the word” about. When I started, cats were allowed in school for career days (today we rely on photos). One night years ago, the Germantown library had a fun evening family program with cat stories and songs!
I have done career days from elementary school to high school. Remembering my own experience applying to veterinary school, I know getting experience is so important for students considering veterinary medicine. We have had many high school interns and are eager to give students that opportunity to see what we do. They may decide they aren’t interested, which is just as important as finding what you do want to do. And I’m proud to have mentored several to become veterinarians.
What has changed since 1981?
- When I graduated, the Feline Leukemia Virus vaccine was brand new. Since that time, testing and vaccination has dramatically decreased the number of cats with this devastating disease.
- Flea control is safer for humans and the environment, as well as for cats. And so much easier than the old method of “bathing and dipping!”
- We’ve learned so much about nutrition that while we still see urinary stones and blockages, the numbers are a fraction of what we used to see.
- Ultrasound has enabled us to more accurately diagnose which problems require surgery in a non-invasive way. Consequently we do far fewer “exploratory” surgeries.
- Finally, pain medications are so much safer and more effective that we know we can keep cats comfortable.
We still have diseases we’ve not been as successful with. For example, FIP is a corona virus that is different from COVID-19. It has been around as long as I’ve been practicing and does not affect people, but it is devastating to cats. The veterinary community is still working on that. There is a promising treatment, but still a lot of work to do.
A few final thoughts…
I think we get to see the best, most caring side of people. Being part of your families is a responsibility we take very seriously. I can’t imagine doing anything else and I’m so grateful I’ve had the opportunity to care for your cats. Thank you for sharing them with me and all of us at A Cat Clinic.