The word in and of itself embodies an entire sentence.
It is both an explanation of feline behavior and a question…and intimidates many.
Despite the vast unknown that is, well, cats, we are drawn in by those lovely little floofs and their absurdly adorable toe-beans.
Enter in Dr. Julie Liu, relief vet extraordinaire.
Feline friendly and Fear Free equipped, sharing tips, tricks, and wisdom regarding cat friendly handling is inspiration to her relief work.
Texas and California, you have first dibs. New York? Offer her a pizza and see where things go.
Name your niche: large animal, small animal, pocket pets, and/or exotics?
ER, GP, and/or shelter?
GP dogs and cats – but I’d love to work exclusively with cats someday.
Everyone has a story – what’s yours? What inspired you to become a veterinarian?
I’ve always loved animals. I remember wanting to become a wildlife vet when I was a kid but also a writer. When I went to school for writing, I realized that I didn’t want to become a teacher or a professor. So, I of course made the logical choice to work at Half Price Books while I figured out what I wanted to do.
I began volunteering with the behavior helpline at the humane society in the Twin Cities area, which at the time was supervised by a veterinary behaviorist. I learned a ton from her handouts and was confused as to why pet owners were talking to a random volunteer about their pet’s behavior issues when they should be talking to their vet. My passion for behavior grew, and I decided to go back to school to become a vet.
You’ve made the switch to relief practice. Why?
One word: freedom!
I’d been an associate for years but was feeling the stress of being a “typical” vet, so I started brainstorming ways of moving into non-clinical practice. I became a freelance contributor for Fear Free when I was still an associate and remember the thrill and shock of learning I could generate income as a vet without practicing in a clinic.
When I left my associate position, I knew I didn’t want to go back, so I contacted the two relief vets I knew in Austin and invited them out to coffee. They loved being relief vets and gave me so much great advice about how to find work, how to invoice, how to set your rates, how to schedule, etc. They also referred some clinics to me to get me started, which I appreciated so much. Once I made the transition to relief work, I had the freedom to pursue different roles in the profession while having a source of reliable income. It’s also helped my work/life balance and stress levels immensely – I’m better able to leave work at work.
How do you feel that relief practice supports the veterinary profession as a whole?
So many ways! The veterinary profession is not in a great place right now, with burnout and anxiety, and understaffing galore. I feel good knowing that I’m helping clinics that are overbooked, helping with staff vacations, or helping cover for solo practices where the owner never takes time off. Relief vets also bring new ideas to different clinics and provide mentorship.
Outside of the veterinary realm, what types of positions/professions have you been involved in?
After leaving Half Price Books, I worked as the administrative coordinator at a music school and took drum lessons from one of the instructors, who was the percussionist for the Minnesota Orchestra. He could play a different time signature with each limb simultaneously.
What roles have you had within the veterinary profession?
Vet assistant, associate vet, relief vet, freelance writer, performer of a little voiceover work reading my writing for a pet app, medical content reviewer, speaker, feline clinic consultant, presenter and coach for a feline handling workshop, curriculum creator, mentor, intern for the AAFP Board of Directors, volunteer for the Cat Friendly Practice Committee, and volunteer for The Raptor Center in St. Paul before vet school.
Keeping it PG, what is your most memorable relief job?
The first time I did a shift at a feline-only clinic was really eye-opening. I had some great cat parent clients over the years when I was an associate and worked at a Cat Friendly Practice, but a lot of people who work with cats dread seeing them and aren’t comfortable with handling them in a cat friendly way. I love dogs but being in an environment that catered exclusively to cats and cat parents was great. It made me realize that I want to take more of a feline focus in the coming years and try to do more to support feline only practices, which includes mentorship in cat friendly handling.
What are your favorite things about being a relief vet?
Being able to pick when and where I work, passing on Fear Free and Cat Friendly concepts to staff members and new groups of clients, meeting other staff members, learning new ideas from different clinics, and having minimal callbacks. I also never liked doing soft tissue surgery or dentistry when I was an associate, so when I became a relief vet, I made the decision to never do surgery or dentistry again!
Have you picked up any unique practice tips while being a relief vet? These could be related to medicine, workflow, practice organization, or anything really.
I’ve learned how to become more efficient at doing records. I typically have pretty detailed records, but I realized after my first shift that keeping a staff member waiting so I can finish my records and they can lock up is not the best way to build goodwill. It’s an ongoing process but I have gotten faster. Some clinics have online veterinary software, but I don’t want to do any clinic work when I get home.
Before a shift, I leave home with time to spare so I can pull into the parking lot 20 minutes before my shift and walk into the clinic 15 minutes prior to the shift. I like to have time to put away my lunch, fill my treat pouch, and review the records for my patients that morning. Some clients will get there early for appointments, and it’s nice to feel like you have a little extra time to start the day. For new clinics, I try to walk in the door 20-30 minutes early to meet the staff and get a clinic tour. I also bring donuts to new clinics and periodically for my regular clinics. They’re a business expense and always appreciated.
How about your least favorite things about being a relief vet?
Learning the business part of things, communicating with staff members or clients who are used to the staff vets and not always open to your way of practicing, giving up good health insurance and scrounging on the not-very-good health insurance marketplace.
What advice would you give new relief vets? (Alternatively, what advice would you give someone who is thinking about being a relief vet?)
Get a website, make a LinkedIn profile, talk to other relief vets in your area, and join Relief Rover! I’ve also learned a lot from my peers in the Relief Veterinarians Exclusive Facebook group. Don’t book too far ahead so you can leave space in your schedule for fun and other opportunities. A lot of people are scared of the unknown and the feeling of lacking stability, and new things can be somewhat scary. But change brings growth, and I don’t know a single relief vet who wants to go back to being an associate.
What do you look for in a practice when deciding to cover shifts for them?
Ethical and respectful practice owners who value work/life balance for their employees, good quality medicine, friendly and compassionate staff members, skilled technicians who can get samples while I talk with the pet owner, 30-minute appointments. I would also prefer to support practices that value DEI by reflecting it in their staff makeup.
Pathologically prepared or minimalist: what supplies or equipment do you bring with you on the job?
Prepared to be Fear Free and Cat Friendly, minimalist otherwise. I work GP and have a VIN subscription, so I don’t really take any books with me. I bring my stethoscope, pocket calculator, highlighter, pen, Sharpie, and clipboard, and I always pack my lunch. The bulkiest things I bring are my Fear Free/ Cat Friendly supplies: non-slip bathtub mat, Fear Free treat pouch, variety of low and high value treats, squeaky toys, tennis balls, lidocaine cream, Fear Free/ Cat Friendly client handouts.
The world is reopening from the pandemic. Has this shift back towards normality affected your relief practice?
I became a relief vet during the pandemic, and have always been pretty COVID conscious, with masking throughout my shifts and eating my lunch in my car. I also tried to work at clinics that were more curbside and that required that staff members wear masks. Now no one in Austin seems to be masking, but I’ll continue to mask during my shifts for the time being.
I am hoping to do more travel-related relief in the future. I got licensed in California last year because my sister lives there, but I have yet to practice there.
What states are you licensed in and/or states you are working to obtain licensure within?
Licensed in TX and CA. I’d love to get licensed in NY someday, mostly because I love NYC and the East Coast. I literally had a dream about eating New York pizza early in the pandemic.
Aside from English, what language(s) do you speak?
Chinese at the level of a 3-year-old child, and I’m currently learning Spanish on
Duolingo. I started on January 1, 2020, a few months before my partner and I were going to take a trip to Oaxaca. Guess what else happened in 2020? I hope we can make that trip next year.
What are your hobbies/passions outside of work?
Before the pandemic, I used to love traveling, going to movies, trying new restaurants, going to bakeries, and cooking. During the pandemic, it’s been mostly takeout and binge-watching at home, but I’m slowly getting back into restaurants and travel and I’m excited. I also love watching wild birds in my yard and have hummingbird feeders and a wren house.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Vets can have portfolio careers too! Don’t limit yourself, and it never hurts to ask.
I’ve had so many interesting career turns because I’ve reached out to someone on LinkedIn or applied for a job that sounded kind of cool or pitched an idea to someone. At worst they can ignore you or turn you down, at best you’ll find yourself meeting and collaborating with some really amazing people.
To learn more about or to contact Dr. Julie Liu, click here.