Dr Michaela Avery opened the Inner West Cat Hospital in Newtown in September 2021 – a labour of love that’s been well worth it.
What motivated you to plan, build and open the Inner West Cat Hospital in King Street, Newtown, in September 2021? And why is such a fear-free environment for treating cats so important?
The Inner West is one of the most cat-loving communities in the world, cat-culture is rampant here, that’s why I love it so much and why I moved here 15 years ago. I used to work at the Cat Protection Society many, many years ago, so I knew that cat-love was here, and after becoming a vet and learning what it was like to work in multiple practices where dogs and cats are treated side by side. I knew there was a need for a practice where cats would not need to hear, see, smell or have to worry about dogs while they are feeling unwell. As a prey species, the added stress of knowing a potential predator is close by is huge, even for cats who have their own dog friends at home. They don’t know the other dogs in hospital are friendly, they just know that not only do they feel like crap, there is also something in the building that might eat them while they are down. It would be like going to a doctor that also treats bears and poisonous snakes. It doesn’t feel nice to see the cats so scared and stressed when they are down, and it can even make them sicker, and they get so angry with us, it becomes dangerous for the staff too. Here it is peaceful, there are happy pheromones infused throughout the place, everything is warm, silent and calming. We have all the right drugs, equipment and creature comforts to reassure a sick cat and make them as happy and content as possible. Even our doorbell is peace inducing, and as much as we love dogs out there, they aren’t allowed in here.
What makes the Inner West Cat Hospital a world-class feline hospital?
What helps make us world-class is our “new-ness” – we are so new we have the latest of everything. Both Ash and I, up until recently, worked in high-end referral and specialist hospitals both here and overseas. We knew what was available when we stocked the hospital, and we knew what equipment we wanted and what works well for cat patients. We also knew what we didn’t want. We also were able to pretty quickly attain gold-standard ISFM cat-friendly clinic accreditation, which is the international benchmark for cat clinics globally. Not many places have that.
How have the alliances you’ve forged helped improve the lives of cats in need?
We have always had the idea that this clinic would serve to support as many cat charities as we can carry. That was the plan for the clinic from the start. We both only ever wanted to get into this game to help cats and it has never been about making money for us. We have been slowly but surely securing enough income to be able to do the vet work for The Cat Protection Society, Inner City Strays, The Mini Kitty Commune, Cat Rescue 901, Paws and Recover, Animal Rescue Sydney, Cat Defence Network and a number of others. Inner City Strays have been great supporters of us from the start and many an old street cat would have been without food or veterinary attention if they did not go out and feed, check on and treat homeless cats rain, hail or shine.
We also have our own foster kittens that we have both somehow ended up with, Ash and I co-parent quite well. So far, through the clinic, we have raised and rehomed over 35 kittens that have landed on our doorstep. During the recent storms we had about 17 tiny babies in care here that had been washed out of drains, gutters or gardens. They were some sleepless and expensive weeks! We’ve helped so many in the last few months, but I really do love it when an old or scared cat gets busted out of the pound and brought in here (Mini Kitty Commune do a great job of rescuing all the old abandoned seniors out of the pound to give them warmth, love and comfort and some medications to sooth their poor old bones). I must say that the charity we work with that strikes a chord with both Ash and I is Paws and Recover. They give shelter and provide veterinary care to animals whose owners are fleeing domestic violence or other abuse situations, or to the people of animals who have had to go into care or treatment for whatever reason. If you are looking for a charity to support, there are none quite like them out there. We have looked after animals that would otherwise have quietly starved at home with no one to take care of them if this charity didn’t exist (in fact we did have one that had been at home alone for a few weeks before they stepped in and saved his life). Their owners are always so grateful, the animals and the humans involved are each other’s lifelines and the lives of both are just so precarious.
The hospital has a full surgical suite enabling your vets to perform routine desexing, general soft tissue surgery and orthopaedic surgeries, with patients placed under general anaesthesia or sedation. What is one memorable and important surgical procedure you have done this month?
I have a background in small animal surgery. I completed my surgery internship at North Shore Specialist Hospital and attained my memberships of the Australian College in small animal surgery back in 2017, so I do get sent some interesting cases from other hospitals that may not be seen in most GP practices. We recently “MacGyvered” a splint to correct a very irregular chest malformation that was literally preventing a kitten from breathing properly (she can breathe perfectly now!) Then there was the cat that had fallen onto a two-foot long spike, and he is absolutely fine now too. My favourite thing is reconstruction. There is nothing more satisfying than rearranging, removing or repairing something that is causing a cat pain, and they get to wake up and their life is suddenly so much happier and easier.
Currently, there is a severe veterinary skills shortage and an additional one million pets estimated to need care in Australia post-pandemic. In the context of figures like this and also the following –
- 13,951 vets in Australia vs 129,066 human doctors
- 30.4 million pets vs 25.8 million people
- 2179 pets per veterinarian vs 200 patients per doctor
what kinds of stress are vets facing post-pandemic?
Prior to COVID, I think the biggest stress for us in the industry is people’s expectations, especially when it does not align with the available resources. The emotional blackmail and pressure we receive (often times unintended) to be available both physically and financially at all hours and at all costs to every living creature is extreme. There is no Medicare for animals. No matter how much we want to help, someone has to pay for the supplies. If there is no owner, or an owner doesn’t want to pay, it comes directly out of our wages. It is not free for us either. We pay to treat our own pets too. There are only so many hours in a day, and it really starts to wear you down when you are working night and day and have to field calls from friends of friends of friends who are after free advice on the side. I would say I get at least three to five requests a night for help. Often-times friends will casually ask for advice and they don’t realise that another four people already have asked that day. Formulating a treatment plan is mentally arduous. There is no “casual” advice. It is always exhausting. I think in our case it is highlighted: at the moment we only have three staff in total, one vet, one nurse and one animal attendant and we see up to 30 patients a day; a mix of both medical and surgical cases. That is a lot of responsibility and a lot of brain space taken up with problem-solving, formulating, plotting and planning treatments for each individual patient.
There is absolutely no margin for error either. Many clients expect that you will be able to identify and 100 per cent fix the problem first go, you must have all the answers in the first five seconds after seeing the animal. Nobody wants to spend money on diagnostics, they want you to predict things with 100 per cent accuracy sometimes. There are a bazillion human medical specialties, and we have to be all of them and all in the one visit in the first five minutes. The fact that everything is so online now, the very real fear of getting a bad google review from someone is a thing that I don’t think was even a factor ten years ago. It is just so much easier to be unkind or make someone doubt themselves nowadays in this post-Covid online battleground.
During Covid, everyone got a pet, and all the humans got sick (including the vets and nurses). As essential workers, the vets had to keep going to work and becoming casual contacts, meaning there were less and less of them each week to treat the burgeoning number of animals. At the start of Covid, I was working in a 24-hour emergency hospital. We had to divide into teams and work seven days of 12-hour shifts in a row so that if one team went down with an infected team member, the other team would then be divided again, and so on and so on. It was a skeleton crew by the end. Even with all the safety measures being adhered to, including contactless consults (i.e. no owners in the building – just their pets), getting Covid was inevitable. You just know the pet you are treating with the lipstick marks all over it has just been kissed by its owner before coming in, even if they did drop them off at the door as instructed, and you kind of have to pick a dog or cat up to examine them, plus they will try their best to lick you. The increase in workload, combined with the dwindling staff numbers and increase in necessary but time-consuming safety measures, reduced efficiency. Tempers frayed both in the clients, and in the workers. Understandably, many vets and nurses reached their breaking point and have now left the industry for good. The other issue is that many vets and nurses come here to work from overseas (especially UK, Ireland and South America) – but as Covid hit they all went back home to be with their families and our workforce vanished. We haven’t had the overseas vets and nurses return to work here either yet. We who are left are still very tired, very stressed and thin on the ground.
You provide many end-of-life treatments but how important is it to be able to point certain people and patients to a specialist service dedicated to compassionate end-of-life care and in-home euthanasia?
One of the most important things we can do as a vet is give people’s pets a dignified and pain-free passing. Animals who are truly suffering cannot do this for themselves no matter how much they might want to. It really is the last big gift we can give them. People always ask me if it makes me sad. It does, but not nearly as sad as the thought that not all pets get to have this relief in the end. For anxious cats, it is often stressful to come into a clinic to do this, so home euthanasia, where the animal can stay where they feel safe, is really a great thing. If they do need to come in to be put to sleep in the clinic, we always do our best to make sure the cat is high on drugs, free of nausea and free of anxiety – anything we can do pharmaceutically to make them happier. But nothing beats being at home for any pet. My good friend Courtney runs Rest your Paws, a home euthanasia and palliation service. She really is the loveliest human and I think that this really is the best option if you have the luxury of being able to plan for these things.
Ashley has extensive training in veterinary nursing and even volunteered at the Tree of Life for Animals; a busy animal hospital and rescue centre in Rajasthan, Northern India. What traits do you share in common with Ashley when it comes to offering care and comfort to cats?
I think some of my first conversations with Ash were about travelling to some crazy and wild places, and our love of combining it with animal rescue. I have worked treating cats and dogs in the most remote and isolated Indigenous communities in Australia, and spent months travelling through Central America and South East Asia with World Vets providing veterinary care to horses, dogs and cats in remote villages. Ash has worked in Rajasthan in India treating dogs and cats in their anti-rabies and animal welfare programs. We have seen some crazy things and we’ve done a lot. Our experiences help us every day to be brave and go the extra mile for every single patient. We are both pretty fearless, we are also both self-made, from working class backgrounds. We went to public school and were brought up to never think we had any restrictions placed on us just by being born girls – and we have both had to fight for that belief ever since. We also both worked at the University Teaching Hospital in the emergency department (and Ash as a vet nursing instructor), and so we are both really into mentoring the newer generations of vets and nurses and helping them to value themselves in an industry that can have a tendency to chew you up if you don’t back yourself. It is a good match. We also both like to laugh. A lot. They say the line between something very-very serious and very-very funny is very-very thin – and I feel like after you have worked in emergency together, humour becomes one of the best coping mechanisms out there.
What do you enjoy most about being a “fully fledged, crazy cat lady”?
I like being a crazy cat lady, it doesn’t stop you from being other things, like I can still go to see bands, go to pubs, and go home to my cats (Fraggle the Persian, Priscilla the Chinchilla and Esme the purebred alley cat). Crazy cat people are everywhere and they are generally the most interesting to be around. They are the ones in the bands, the artists, the ones who own the breweries, who do all the cool and interesting stuff. If I was just, say, really-really into cycling or reading, or something else as niche, it really is very restrictive. It’s not a stigma to be a cat lady (or man) at all nowadays, we are everywhere and into everything.
The Inner West Cat Hospital is on Gadigal Wangal Land in Newtown. What is one thing you and/or your staff enjoy about being based here?
I have loved Newtown since I was a kid. From the day I defied my mum and got my nose pierced in the chemist at the station in the 90s (chemist is no longer open, and that would be no longer legal), my friends and I used to come to Newtown every weekend to hang around in the parks, rummage through the vintage clothing stores, go to the under-age gigs and galleries. We tried to soak up the style and the art and the noise and the colours as much as we could and wear it all week to school. I moved here as soon as I was able to. Now I’m older, I still like to rummage through the vintage clothes, but now I like to eat all the fancy food and soak up the craft beers. I still love the noise and the gigs, and the variety of characters you meet on the streets. Ash likes the food and the bars. As a workplace, you cannot beat King St, we will never ever get bored of this view.
What book is on your nightstand or e-reader and what prompted you to read it?
Fight Like a Girl – by Clementine Ford. It should be a must-read for any girl nowadays. I hardly ever get time to read for fun (we currently work 80 hours a week here), and have been trying to get through this one book for about four years. I will definitely get there one day. I am also reading the biography of Josephine Baker – she is an inspiration.