Pampering cats and clients


From the butterfly garden to the rattan furniture, the high-touch environment at Chico Hospital for Cats in Chico, Calif., reflects the emphasis on client comfort and reassures clients that team members treat their cats with dignity.

By Carolyn Chapman, associate editor

From the butterfly garden to the rattan furniture, the high-touch environment at Chico Hospital for Cats in Chico, Calif., reflects the emphasis on client comfort and reassures clients that team members treat their cats with dignity.

From the street, onlookers often mistake Chico Hospital for Cats in Chico, Calif., for an old farmhouse. Once inside, a gurgling fountain, soft classical music, and charming furniture and artwork give the practice the calming atmosphere of a day spa. But a quick discussion with Owner Dr. Elizabeth J. Colleran shows that her team's focus is clear: "We provide compassionate health care for cats," she says. "And that means we consider the needs of the patient and the client."

Veterinary Economics' Hospital Design Competition judges especially applauded the hospital's public areas. "This plan features a beautiful exterior, a tasteful retail area, and a wonderful adoption and visitation room," said one judge. Another noted that extra touches create a calm environment.

Corporate spillover

The clinic's carefully orchestrated atmosphere is no surprise when you learn that Dr. Colleran spent 11 years as a marketing executive with IBM. She abandoned the business world for a degree in veterinary medicine and a master's degree in animals and public policy, because she always knew she belonged in a service-oriented profession, she says.

Still, after eight years in general practice, she felt disillusioned, and she planned to leave veterinary medicine. "I was tired of practicing the way other people thought I should practice," says the 1990 Tufts University graduate.

An encounter with a mentor changed her mind and led her to start her own dream, the Chico Hospital for Cats. "While I was working on my master's, I did relief work for Dr. Kevin Callanan," she says. "He owned several practices in Boston, and he encouraged me to treat the practice as my own. When I told him my insecurity about borrowing money to build a practice, he said, 'just think of it as a whole lot of zeroes.' "

Her new career focus: felines. Today Dr. Colleran is a member of the American Association of Feline Practitioners and an Academy of Feline Medicine fellow. She loves the focus feline practice offers. "And I enjoy the freedom to use nice furnishings and wear attractive clothing to work without worrying about the damage dogs do," she says.

Laying the foundation

Dr. Colleran scouted available land with a realtor, but she didn't find any commercial sites that would allow a veterinary clinic. However, she did find the perfect plot in a residential/professional zone nearby.

To secure the site, Dr. Colleran placed a bond on the land to keep other buyers at bay. But after five months of working to change zoning, the owner set a deadline for Dr. Colleran to buy the land. "I still had to convince the city council that as a cat hospital, I was as low-key as a dentist's office," Dr. Colleran says. Three weeks before the city council meeting to approve her zoning request, Dr. Colleran bought the land.

Next, she sought the help of a local community college's small business development center to craft her business plan. A local bank quickly approved the project.

With the building site and financing secured, Dr. Colleran faced her next challenge: finding an architect. To save money, she did a lot of the design legwork herself. "I was borrowing 90 percent of my costs, so I needed to cut expenses where possible," she explains.

She photographed appealing residential exteriors and visited flooring shops, and she dove into Veterinary Economics' Portfolio of Award-Winning Floor Plans to gather tested workflow and layout ideas. "I also visited many feline-exclusive practices," she says. "A lot of my colleagues spent hours giving me tours and discussing design, equipment, and inventory options. Designing the hospital myself was hard work, but I didn't mind because it was an act of love."

Then she hired local architect Robert Heaton to draw her plan to spec. Heaton says he enjoyed the challenge of refining the plan and organizing the project. "I brought the plan in line with local codes and Americans With Disabilities Act requirements," he says. Dr. Colleran also needed two ultraviolet air-filtration systems, regular filters in air ducts, and attic fans to control odor. And she chose a light-colored composite tile roof to deflect the sun.

Next Dr. Colleran hired the contractor who had helped her build the local emergency clinic, which she co-owns with 24 area veterinarians, to build the new facility. And her husband, who owns a construction company, installed the hardware and trim.

During construction, she says, rumors floated around the hip California town that some crazy woman was building a house next to a major road in the middle of a professional complex. "They were talking about my practice!" she says.

Setting the mood

Dr. Colleran modeled the exterior of the practice after her grandmother's house. "I hope the soft-yellow wood and big front porch remind our clients of simpler times," she says.

In the reception area, limited-edition wildlife prints line the walls, and rattan furniture arranged in intimate groupings on an Oriental rug helps set an upscale tone. Two wide interior arches define the edge of the reception area without introducing harsh angles. And a gurgling fountain, piped-in classical music, and crystal vases overflowing with fresh flowers contribute to the serenity of the practice scene.

"I want clients and cats to relax here," says Dr. Colleran. "Cats are easily stressed, and I want to put them at ease." A cat-adoption room off the reception area showcases adoptable pets.

Rounded exam tables, oak cabinets, and rattan client chairs carry the look of the reception area into the exam rooms. In the visitation room, light-blue wainscoting, lamp lighting, and pillows give team members a comfortable place to conduct difficult consultations. Dr. Colleran positioned the visitation room closest to the back door so distraught clients don't need to pass through the reception area to leave the building.

Dr. Colleran says her feline focus meant she could enjoy some special luxuries in the new facility. "I landscaped without worrying about dogs tearing up my plants," she says. "And rather than choosing the best exam table to handle patients that weigh up to 150 pounds, I could buy the best exam table for my average 10-pound patient."

The transition from the exam rooms to other working areas of the practice is a smooth one, because Dr. Colleran chose the same style oak cabinetry, patterned Formica countertops with oak trim, and vinyl flooring. The pharmacy area lines the hall between the exam rooms and the treatment area. The lab, isolation ward, surgery, and darkroom are all positioned around the treatment area for easy access, and the isolation ward uses a separate air-filtration and ventilation system and an exhaust fan.

The treatment area accommodates two wet and two dry workstations that are specially designed for cats. A glass-block partial wall between the dental area and the rest of the treatment room offers visual separation and minimizes the spread of bacteria.

Large windows bring light into the surgical suite, business office, and boarding area. In boarding, large Plexiglas condos on casters facilitate cleaning. Dr. Colleran saved an old walnut tree to provide boarded cats with an interesting view. And she planted butterfly bushes and installed a fountain that attracts insects and birds to entertain feline boarders.

Building your dream

During construction, Dr. Colleran visited the site daily, and she caught several small mistakes. For example, it took three attempts to install the grid cover over the sinks on the wet tables correctly. "You can't visit the site enough," she says.

She also says it's critical to focus on your goals. "Decide what kind of doctor you want to be, and create a facility that meets your specific needs," says Dr. Colleran. "Architects will show you fancy drawings, but you can't change to fit someone else's vision."

Her vision during the building process: Protect the dignity of cats. "Cats believe they run the show," she says. "And here, they do."

Carolyn Chapman, a former Veterinary Economics associate editor, is freelance writer in Liberty, Mo.

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