Like many people, Louis J. Camuti is allergic to cats. Unlike many people, however, he is a cat doctor. A cat doctor who makes house calls.
Dr. Camuti is relatively certain that his veterinary practice is unique. So certain is he, in fact, that he has collaborated on a book about it. "All My Patients Are Under the Bed: Memoirs of a Cat Doctor" (Simon and Schuster, 222 pages, $10.95).
What the 86-year-old Camuti does -- take care of animals -- is what he has been doing for 60 years. One of New York's most prestigious vets, Camuti used to have an office on Park Avenue. For the past 17 years, however, he has confined his practice to house calls -- under medication for his allergy -- and his patients, to cats.
"It's not that I don't like dogs. I've been a (Dachshund) man for years, but I've always loved cats and I've always had cats," Camuti said during a stop in Washington.
On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, Camuti can be spotted driving around the streets of New York City in his big car with his CAT license plates. He reserves Tuesdays and Thursdays for calls elsewhere in the New York metropolitan area, although he has been known to travel as far as Florida to care for a patient.
"I don't think anyone else will ever do what I'm doing because you just can't find a place to park. I have to take my wife along to mind the hydrants."
Camuti says his move from a cat-and-dog practice to an all-cat practice was a natural one.
"When I first started to specialize in cats, back in 1933, no one thought too much of them. Dogs could be a status symbol, but nobody could really see you walking your cats. It was also thought that it was not manly to love a cat. Or even to like a cat, although all that's changed today."
The house-call part of the practice is mainly for the good of the cat, Camuti says, rather than for convenience of the owner.
"There's a great advantage if a cat closes its eyes at home and opens them at home also. If a cat loses its freedom, its ability to get around, or the knowledge of the space that it's in, then it gets very traumatized."
Camuti, of course, cannot do everything on a house call. But his repertoire is surprisingly complete: spay and neuter operations, vaccinations, clipping nails -- right on the kitchen table. For such things as X-rays or lab tests, Camuti recommends that the animal be taken to a veterinary hospital.
There are special problems, of course, with practicing medicine, even veterinary medicine, in the home. "Cats have an extra sense I haven't been able to figure out," Camuti says. "They know the day I'm due, they know roughly the hour I'm due. They do it every time."
Invariably, if the owner has not followed instructions to lock up the cat, Camuti's patient is nowhere to be found when he arrives.
Treating cats also requires special skills, simply because cats are, well, catty.
"Cats are much more difficult to treat than dogs," Camuti says with a touch of pride. "First of all, they have four paws that can tear the living lights out of you, while a dog doesn't. Cats frighten more easily, and once they're excited they're almost impossible to really hold well."
The role of the cat is society is changing rapidly, Camuti asserts, with the average veterinary practice today almost 50 percent cats, much higher than in the past.
Cats are becoming more popular, he says, because there are more people living in urban centers who want pets, but can't keep dogs.
"It's something to love with the least amount of care." For many people. "It's rather a lonesome life if it weren't for the cat. It keeps people down to a good level. Not only that, I tell my women clients that it's easier to take care of a cat than a husband.
"People have gotten to know the value of a cat. It's just as affectionate as a dog; it's just not as demonstrative. When it wants affection it asks for it, and when it doesn't want it, you can just get lost. Executives especially find it a great challenge to wonder what a cat is thinking about when it just sits there looking at you."
Before Camuti will take on a prospective client, he or she must show not only the ability to pay the bill on time, but also a willingness to follow instructions and demonstrate a sincere love for their cat or cats.
For anyone thinking about getting a cat, Camuti says that different breeds of cats do indeed have different personalities.
"Take the Siamese. They talk a lot. The pedigreed long-haired cats are more hams. They like to lie around and how off how beautiful they are. But the common domestic cat, the average cat, is more or less the same."
No matter the kind of cat, it needs to be neutered, says Camuti, not only for its well-being, but for yours. "In neutering, you remove a lot of frustrations on the part of the animals."
On the other hand, declawing is one operation Camuti will not perform in the home -- or anywhere else. "Certainly the cat isn't happy because it lost it claws. Most of the reason for declawing a cat is to save the furniture. I say that if you're that anxious to have furniture, don't have a cat."
Camuti is equally adamant about keeping cats in.
"It's not at all cruel to keep a cat inside all the time. Cats don't need to be outside to be happy.They appreciate the safety of their surroundings." The life expectancy of a cat with liberal going-out privileges is about 6 years, Camuti estimates, while it could be 16 or more for one that stays inside.