Heather Kennedy, D.V.M., is a rebel at heart. Fueled by her fierce dedication to cats, she built her veterinary career by breaking the mold and refusing to listen to doubters. Now, she’s saving cats’ lives every day as a veterinarian and Animal Care Manager for FieldHaven Feline Center in California, which operates the Alley Cat Allies® Recovery Center for the feline victims of the deadly 2018 Camp Fire.
Kennedy never planned to become a veterinarian. She earned her first degree in philosophy and started her career as a retail district manager. Then Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Kennedy drove out to Louisiana to volunteer with Alley Cat Allies to help protect cats, and President and Founder Becky Robinson appointed her the manager of Alley Cat Allies’ emergency animal shelter. There, she practiced Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) for the first time and was hooked.
“It made me realize that I was interested in the medical side of helping cats, and that I might also want to go to vet school,” she says. “Before, at my old job, I didn’t feel like I was doing something important. It was important to me to feel like I was doing something important.”
So, when she went back home to Lompoc, California, Kennedy began taking classes so she could enroll in veterinary school. She also quit her job so she and her best friend could spend as much time as possible volunteering with the local shelter to trap, spay and neuter, and return cats all over the area. She says she carried out TNR on as many as 1,000 cats in two years.
“We saw a significant decrease in euthanasia for cats at the Santa Barbara County Animal Services shelter in the two years after we started doing TNR,” she says. “It got to the point where animal services (staff) was happy to work with us and local police would wave at us when they saw us out and about.”
In 2009, Kennedy was accepted into the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. She pursued the path of a feline-only practitioner, even though her professors said she’d have difficulty finding jobs. Since graduating in 2013, she has worked at three clinics and treated thousands of cats.
Kennedy has worked at FieldHaven Feline Center since November 2017. She conducts surgeries like spay and neuter for shelter and community cats but says her real passion lies in treatment and diagnosis. She takes pride in curing what ails cats, from the medical needs of cats affected by the Camp Fire to unique conditions like congenital hypothyroidism. She even takes cats home with her if they need extra attention. Right now, she’s nursing Princess Pillsbury, a cat with the fungal infection cryptococcosis, to make sure she eats properly.
“When I wake up each morning, I always have a particular cat who needs my help on my mind,” she says. “I think about their condition and what they need and what I can do for them. That gets me up and out of bed.”
Kennedy is also against declawing cats and encourages her colleagues to see the procedure as unacceptable. There are safer alternatives to prevent cats from clawing furniture, she says.
When Kennedy mulls her future, she says she’s especially interested in working with feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), a difficult to treat and often fatal disease. Never one to back down from a challenge, Kennedy looks forward to doing whatever it takes to save cats’ lives.