Dr. Cay Gilbertson's patients can't talk, but if they could, they would probably rave about her.
Everyone else does.
"I love working with Cay," says Nicole Gruendl, office manager at the Gene Poole Memorial Cat Clinic in Bellingham. "She knows her business, she's adored by her clients, and she knows cats, that's for sure."
Gilbertson earned a bachelor's degree in English from Stanford University in 1971, lived in Bellingham for a while, then graduated cum laude from Washington State University's veterinary school in 1981. After a year at a small practice in Seattle, she returned to Bellingham to join the cat clinic as its first woman veterinarian. When the founder, Dr. Bob Cockcroft, decided to move away in 1983, Gilbertson leased and eventually bought the clinic, which serves felines only.
"I get a kick out of cats," she says, "and I wanted to specialize."
The clinic used to be the size of an apartment, with only Gilbertson and two employees working there. It has since expanded to seven employees and three doctors (including Gilbertson).
The clinic has grown so popular that it now uses space in a building across the street for offices and to house cats that need to be isolated, usually to keep them from spreading respiratory infections.
From the outside, the clinic's main building looks like any other old house on Dupont Street. But inside are exam rooms, operating tables and even a lab. Doctors at Gene Poole do simple tests, such as urinalysis or fecal analysis there, but usually send tests out on daily lab pickups because it's less expensive.
"We do the best medicine we can, and we try to spend clients' money very carefully, because nobody has a whole bunch of it these days," Gilbertson says.
People pay more attention to their cats now than they used to, Gilbertson says, and she appreciates the level of concern her clients have for their pets.
"The best part is, of course, working with the kitties," Gilbertson says. "But you don't just work with the kitties. You work with the kitties and the owners, and we have wonderful folks who come in here."
LIKES DOG AND HORSES, TOO
A couple, Dan and Megan Weber, brings in four kittens to be checked out; a stray they took in turned out to be pregnant. They hope to post adoption fliers at the clinic. People who care enough to bring their cats to the clinic will probably give a kitten a good home, Megan Weber says.
Gilbertson has four cats of her own, but her love for animals doesn't stop there. She also owns two horses rescued off the racetrack, and two American Pit Bull Terriers that sometimes hang out at the clinic and go for walks on Gilbertson's breaks.
"They have a bad rap, but it's because of bad owners," she says of the breed. "Pit bulls have killed children - you can't deny what's happened - but that's not the dogs' fault."
The two dogs aren't the only non-patients around the clinic. Two cats, Midnight and Momo, live there, wandering the back offices and sometimes finding their way to naps on the office keyboard.
Midnight is diabetic; Momo was rescued after hurting her leg in a car's fan belt.
Downstairs, five patients await treatment: Diamond needs dental work; Remus and Faux have wounds that may have abscessed; and Frankie and Briar need chemotherapy. Their anxious meows pierce the constant whir of a washer and dryer. Each cat lies on, or is covered in, a towel.
"All our kitties have towels. We don't use newspapers or anything," Gilbertson says. "So we do a lot of laundry."
Faux, a 2-year-old short-haired tabby, limped home with some battle wounds after a daylong absence. Gilbertson and her staff worry that his cuts have abscessed. Veterinary assistant Chris Somerville injects him with a medicinal cocktail that tranquilizes him, keeps his heartbeat stable and numbs his pain.
"Controlling pain makes a big difference in how they get better," Gilbertson says.
Somerville shaves Faux's belly and leg to reveal scratches and three bite marks. Gilbertson checks the basics (nice eardrums, huge lymph nodes) as Somerville wipes down Faux's now-bare belly.
Fortunately, his leg is not broken, but the bite on his belly is large - too large to have come from another cat. They suspect Faux might have fought with a raccoon, or a dog.
"Raccoons can be really bad news for kitties," Gilbertson says, picking the largest hole clean with a scissor-like instrument.
Somerville trades dry banter with Gilbertson as they dress Faux's leg. The two have worked together for six years and developed a sarcastic rapport that Gilbertson doesn't share with the other assistants.
The atmosphere in the clinic is different on days when Gilbertson isn't there, Somerville says.
"It's hard having Cay only around part of the time," she says. "I love working with her."
Gilbertson sneaks bites of her breakfast between filling out paperwork and calling patients' owners. When she notices Faux hasn't had some preventive shots, she recommends three to his owner, including one for feline leukemia, which can be spread by bites.
What she and Somerville have just done is called a "dirty" surgery, because the trapped bacteria that form an abscess mean there is no way to be sterile. Somerville gives Faux an antibiotic shot, to fight infection, along with the vaccines. He can now return to his crate to ease out of his anesthetic slumber.
GOOD HUMOR, DESPITE CANCER
Gilbertson's good humor permeates not just her camaraderie with Somerville, but all of her work. When Diamond's dental exam reveals some less-than-pearly whites, she chuckles, "Well, he's been using them for 13 years."
The best way to treat cats is to learn to think like they do, Gilbertson says. Such empathy that day is perhaps strongest with the two cancer kitties, Frankie and Briar.
"I know what it feels like to be so sick from chemo that you can't function," she says.
Gilbertson had to spend a year and a half away from the clinic starting in 2010 because of a tumor at the base of her tongue. While she underwent surgery, radiation, biopsies and hyperbaric oxygen, the clinic's staff and clients wrote her get-well cards.
"It just touched my heart and helped me get better," she says. "Having cancer is no fun."
On top of that, it was hard to be away from work for so long.
"I just missed being here so much," she says. "I just love fixing kitties. It's still a pleasure and a privilege to come to work every day."
The cancer recovery has slowed her down - she only works Tuesdays through Thursdays now - but Gilbertson, 63, has no plans to retire anytime soon.
She would miss her favorite part of the job: "Seeing the joy on people's faces when they get their friend back."
CAY GILBERTSON'S TIP FOR FIRST-TIME CAT OWNERS
Read about the species, not just the breed. Learn about cats' behavior, what they like and don't like to eat, etc.
Get the right cat for you. Whatcom Humane Society offers education programs and tries to place the right cat with the right people.
Remember, cats are not small dogs. Don't expect them to learn tricks, come when called, or enjoy riding in the car. "They're every bit as loving as dogs and every bit as fun, but they're different," Gilbertson says.
Ask a vet. Your veterinarian can offer more advice on how to care for your particular cat, based on its health needs.
Gina Cole is a Bellingham freelance writer.