Even as a young girl, North Carolina native Dr. Hazel Carney knew she wanted to be a doctor. But she also knew she would rather work with animals than people. For the 27 years she's been a practicing veterinarian, she's specialized in cats, and for the last 10 years, much of her focus has been on cat behavior.
With her friendly black cat Hopalong "Hoppy" Cat-astrophe in her arms (until he jumped up to sleep atop a high cabinet in the examination room) the doctor told Boise Weekly in her sweet, Southern accent about how her practice expanded, why she's fine with being known as the "crazy cat lady" and why if you meet her at a cocktail party, she can't diagnose your cat's problem.
Is Hoppy a resident of the clinic?
No, he's mine. He's an Emmett barn cat.
You are a certified veterinarian?
All veterinarians have a practice license. We then have specialties. I am board certified in clinical practice. I'm actually a specialist. For the best equivalency to human medicine, this is sort of like being a specialist in family practice. But I have chosen to work with cats only my entire career.
Was that something you knew you wanted to do early on in your life?
I originally thought of human medicine and realized I could not deal with hypochondriacs. Animals are honest. Plus, I always had this innate connection with cats that people kept pointing out. I'd show up somewhere and a cat would find me kind of thing.
And were you always drawn to cats the way they were drawn to you?
Yes. I've always enjoyed them, had cats when I grew up, played with them, whatnot. When I went to vet school, my own personal cat both behaviorally and medically stumped the vet school at Colorado State University. When ultimately I had to euthanize him, I made him the promise that I would learn as much as I could about cats. Back in the dark ages, we didn't really know a lot about cats. As a matter of fact, serious behavioral work has been only in the past 10 years or so. Where we have true good clinical trials, studies, evaluations of cat behavior, what we're now saying is based on scientific fact. There have been little bits and pieces all along, of course, but there's been a big increase and scientific effort in the last 10 to 15 years.
What brought you to Boise?
I went to college in Colorado then vet school and met an Idaho cowboy. He's also a veterinarian. He is a beef cow veterinarian that teaches at the Kane Veterinary Center in Caldwell. He teaches beef production medicine. We came back to Idaho 13 years ago. Before that, we were at [Louisiana State University].
Did you start as a cat behaviorist as you started your schooling?
Oh, no. Back then, I was lucky to say I was going to be a cat doctor. What I did was when I graduated, I opened the 13th [American Veterinary Medical Association] registered cat-only practice in the United States in a renovated 75-year-old barn [in Baton Rouge, La.]. I'm one of the oldest living cat doctors in captivity. And the craziest probably.
Did you have a busy practice?
Oh, heavens, yes. It mushroomed in no time because people were looking for a veterinarian that, more than anything, understood cats as being separate from dogs, medically. And the cats taught me. I back-doored into behavior because veterinarians who hated to deal with cranky cats, or cats who weren't doing what the owners thought they should, sent them to me because I was crazy enough to look at them. And that's literally what they'd say. They'd say, "Hazel, you deal with this crazy cat. I don't know what to do with him." So I started studying more and more about feline behavior—what was known at that point—and was lucky that LSU's fairly close to Texas A&M where one of the first clinical cat behaviorists, Dr. Bonnie Beaver [a recent president of the AVMA], was stationed. I studied and attended conferences and saw more cats and wrote, so one thing led to the other.
How many pets do you have yourself?
Currently, two cats, one dog, five horses, seven cows.
The two cats in your family are probably quite well cared for.
That was the joke for the longest time when we moved up here. Our daughter could finally have all the critters she wanted. We finally had the space. And she'll talk to anybody. In the line at the grocery store, she'd say to someone, "How many cats do you have? I have 28." And we'd say, "Whoa, whoa, whoa. Her parents are both veterinarians. [The animals] are not abused. And we had chickens and rabbits. We do have a lot of space."
It must be so hard not to take animals home all the time. How do you deal with that?
I understand the stress I would be doing by introducing too many in a limited space. I'd create more problems for them than I'd be solving.
When people ask what you do, what do you tell them?
I say I'm a cat doctor. I am not board certified in behavior. There is a board certification in behavior, but that would require all species and going back for a residency. As long as I have been doing this, I'm comfortable doing feline behavior. We do not have a board-certified behaviorist in Idaho. The closest ones are in Seattle. Fortunately, having grown up through the profession, I know them personally. If I have a cat I don't have an answer for, I call one of them and ask, "Where can you send me?" or "Should I send you the cat?" and whatnot.
Does anyone ever ask you to analyze a cat on the spot?
All the time.
Can you tell them anything?
Normally, because of client patient relationship guidelines and the legalities, all I can do is make generalized recommendations. For instance if they say the cat's wetting all over the place, I'll ask them common questions like "How many cats do you have?" and "How many litter boxes?" If they have too few litter boxes, I'll say that one of the recommendations we always make is one litter box per cat plus one for visitors. For specific individual recommendations, I would have to physically see the cat.
Just like a people doctor?