A purr-fect combination

WHEATON, IL -- When Dr. Mark Biehl opened a veterinary clinic catering exclusively to cats, he wasn't driven by a deep love of felines.

He was driven instead by a deep sense of sympathy.

By the time they arrive at the vet's office—having just endured a car ride—cats are already a whisker away from losing their cool, he said. To expect them to tolerate the barking of dogs is cruel.

''Have you ever seen a cat trapped in a cage with a dog nearby?'' asked Biehl, cringing. ''That expression on their face . . .''

It was enough to convince Biehl to open a quiet, cats-only clinic in Wheaton. In business since 1993, the College Station Cat Clinic, 1010 College Ave., is the only veterinary hospital in the city—and one of just a few in the area—to treat only cats. The Abbeywood Cat Clinic in Naperville and the Cat Hospital in Westmont also cater exclusively to the species.

The College Station Cat Clinic has an appropriate mascot—a long-haired black feline named Sassy, who lounges on the counter while clients fill out paperwork. A wall-mounted cork board across from the counter is covered with snapshots of Biehl's furry patients.

Several of Biehl's neckties feature frolicking felines. But even when he's not sporting a cat tie, felines are near and dear to his heart, clients say.

''Dr. Biehl is very gentle and very attentive,'' said Alyce Litz, owner of 7-year-old Harley. ''He talks to the cats while he's working with them, and he explains everything to the owners as he goes along. And he always calls to follow up to see how the cats are doing.''

Cat clinics have become more common in the past decade or so, but before that, it was a dog eat dog veterinary world.

Veterinarians regarded cats as ''little dogs,'' Biehl said, when in fact the two species' pathologies vary greatly. A dog and a cat might have identical symptoms, but the underlying cause likely isn't the same.

Even with afflictions that affect both dogs and cats, each species responds differently. For example, heartworms invade both species, but in cats the worms never make it to the heart. Instead, they end up in the lungs, where reactive cells kill them.

''If the disease had been discovered in cats, it would have been called lungworm,'' Biehl said. Though the clinic was set up with kitty comfort in mind, some patients still are paranoid.

''Some cats are so uptight about life that you really can't do anything until they're tranquilized,'' Biehl said. ''Other cats are perfectly normal at home, where they're dominant. They totally rule the household. So when they come here, they feel very challenged. They smell the odor of other cats and are automatically put on the defensive because they have to defend new territory.''

When cats come to the clinic, Biehl assigns them a rating on the 'Scared Cat' scale and notes it in their medical charts. A Scared Cat 4 is relaxed and perhaps even sociable.

A Scared Cat 1 might gouge some eyeballs.

Just as Biehl's four-legged patients have different personalities, their bipedal counterparts reveal that there really is no such thing as a stereotypical 'cat person' he said.

''The classic stereotype of a cat owner that has 20 cats and eats beans and rice so they can keep them all fed—we don't see much of those.''