Cats Only Clinic
How an Ohio-based feline-only clinic has positioned itself for success in one competitive market – with its eye on more locations.
This summer, Cats Only Veterinary Clinic celebrated a milestone of sorts. Its owner, Andrea Lukuch, hired the clinic’s 35th employee. When she bought the practice six years ago, there were only 12 employees, including veterinarians, technicians, and front office staff.
Judging by patient volume in 2022, the clinic is poised for even more team growth. Patient visits have increased by about 30% over the last 12 months. “And that’s been like an ongoing trend since COVID,” Lukuch said. “We’ve been one of the fortunate hospitals that have been able to add a DVM, technicians and CSR staff. I know that across the nation, there have been shortages of finding help, but we’ve been just really lucky that the cat people are finding us.”
Doing “great things for cats”
Lukuch is the second-generation owner of Cats Only. The original owner opened the clinic in 1988 with the idea that “cat people” wanted something different. At the time, it was the only feline-focused clinic in Columbus, Ohio.
Lukuch started working at Cats Only in 1996, “and I drank the Kool-Aid,” she said. Lukuch started as a receptionist and worked as a veterinary assistant, office manager, then practice manager before purchasing the clinic six years ago. “I thought what a great environment not only for cats but for the people that brought their cats in. Being able to provide a quiet environment and just a feline-friendly environment relaxed our patients. You saw the pet owners become different people. They knew their cats were getting the best care, so booking that next visit, dental cleaning, or grooming was an easy next step for them.”
Lukuch attributes the success of the feline-focused clinic to how they’ve marketed the practice to clients and potential staff members. Since purchasing the clinic, Lukuch has wanted Cats Only to be a place where team members could have not only a job but a career. In the veterinary clinic space, receptionists and veterinary technicians are often going from job to job. “This is a place where they could truly make their job a career by giving them opportunities to grow,” she said. “If you want to sit at a desk all day, make phone calls, and fawn over the cats coming into the office, then great, there’s a place for you here. If you want to take your role and try to get your CVPM or VTS as a veterinary technician, I’m going to do everything I can to support you, and hope that you stay here with me. And if you don’t, that’s OK, too, because you’re going to go out into the world and do great things for cats (and probably dogs too). I want people to do great things for pets, and I want to contribute to their legacy in doing that.”
Work-life balance is something Cats Only promotes to team members, especially its veterinarians. The doctors can make work schedules that accommodate their family life. “A happy employee is somebody who wants to come to work, and they want to do the good work that we do,” she said. “So, whatever I can do to facilitate that and still do the great cat work – that’s a win-win for everybody.”
Supply and demand
Missing out on 50% of the small animal population can be a scary proposition for some practitioners. But Cats Only has found a niche in a veterinary-heavy market in Columbus, Ohio, especially considering a major veterinary university is in town. “Really, it was just instinctive for our founding owner,” Lukuch said, “and it’s common sense now that these cats have a different experience.”
Cats Only treats every type of feline patient, from high-energy kittens to grouchy, geriatric cats. Chronic kidney disease is at the top of the list of conditions treated, Lukuch said. Other common conditions Cats Only sees include hyperthyroidism, feline leukemia, and different types of cancer.
Lukuch considers Cats Only to be fortunate because it’s located in a relatively affluent area, so while inflation has affected prices, it hasn’t hurt their patient volume. “I think everyone in this area knows that they’re paying more for a gallon of milk, so when their cat food went up $5, it wasn’t too surprising,” she said. “Some new clients are hesitant to make an appointment or don’t book with us, and I wonder, is it the pricing? I hope it’s not for lack of convenience because we have great hours and fantastic veterinarians here ready to help their cats. But if it is price driven, that’s understandable.”
The clinic has had to navigate supply disruptions to cat-specific products recently, especially across the nutrition therapeutic diets. Specifically, there have been a lot of supply chain issues with veterinary diets. Cats Only may have food that cats love for kidney disease one week, then the next week, when pet owners request a refill of the food, it’s gone or on backorder for six months. This can create a lot of stress for the owner because cats are particularly finicky with their food.
“The whole Morris the Cat not eating his food, that’s so true,” Lukuch said. “Cats like what they like, and they hate what they hate. When you finally find something that they’re going to eat for therapeutic reasons, only to have it be discontinued or have difficulty with supplying – it’s detrimental to their treatment.” In some cases, Cats Only has had to recommend that the owner looks to other internet pharmacies, or veterinary pharmacies, to find the food if it’s unavailable through the clinic’s online store. Or, if the shortage is community-wide, try another brand and hope it’s similar to the taste or the texture of the preferred product.
Overall, Cats Only’s online store has seen a major uptick in use during the pandemic. “We had an online presence prior to COVID, but it really did start to pay for itself during the pandemic. Since then, it’s continued to have pretty decent returns,” Lukuch said. “It’s grown over the summer with flea and tick control.”
Giving cats their space
Lukuch said the American Association of Feline Practitioners Cat-Friendly Practice Initiative is helpful for general practitioners in showing them what they can do to make their clinics more friendly for the cat. If a cat has a good experience, the owner can relax and trusts the veterinary team more. Adjustments can include:
- Creating a separate waiting area or waiting space for cats, and cleaning and disinfecting those areas to eliminate dog smells
- Having separate exam rooms for cats
- Having a cat day where the clinic sees only feline patients for one day a week
- When cats are hospitalized, providing an area for them that’s quiet and away from dogs barking
AAFP’s The Cat-Friendly Practice also provides tips and tricks veterinarians can coach their cat owners on, such as how to properly transport their cats to the clinic. Indeed, transporting can be a major stress point for both pets and owners. Cats often hate the carrier and will urinate, leave stools, or vomit in the carrier. Then, when they’re at the vet, they’re often screaming and yelling. “So, coaching the owner through from making that appointment to getting the cat safely in the carrier, getting the carrier recognized as a safe place for the cat, and then safely transporting them and cleanly transporting them to the hospital where they have a great experience,” Lukuch said. “All this starts with that phone call.”
Serving the feline-focused practice
Regarding receiving products from manufacturers and distributors, Lukuch said there’s been some turnover among vendor reps in the area. “When our tried-and-true reps left, and we were introduced to our new reps, there was a little bit of training them to offer us the products that we need.” For instance, giving Cats Only staff a product catalog with a German shepherd on the cover, knowing that 80% of the products inside will be detailing dog stuff, isn’t the best use of time, Lukuch said. “I might put that catalog on the back of my desk and look at it when I have time.”
But if reps take the time to earmark the pages that are truly important to cats, or send links to cat products, Lukuch and her team don’t have to go through all of the extraneous dog, hamster, or fish products. “That makes my job easier. I’m able to decide on a product that might be better for our practice in a quicker time.”
For Cats Only, business is booming. They are in the process of building a second location 30 miles north in Delaware County. They broke ground in September and hope to open their doors this coming spring. Cats Only is also looking into locations in the Cleveland and Cincinnati markets. Niche or not, when veterinarians serve their patients and pet owners well, word spreads. “I’m hoping that we can take the good work that we do here in Columbus and duplicate that,” said Lukuch.