Although Jessica Wootton always hoped to be a veterinarian at some point in her career, she credits a less traditional route for helping her actually realize that goal.

Originally from Blackstone, Virginia, Wootton grew up working on a beef farm before attending Hollins University in Roanoke as an English and theatre major. After graduation, Wootton ended up working as a veterinary assistant at the NOVA Cat Clinic in Arlington and from there decided to attend the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine to get her doctor of veterinary medicine degree, first attending George Mason University to earn a bachelor’s degree in biology for her prerequisite courses.

This prior work experience, both in and out of the veterinary medicine field, fueled her success in the program.

“It was a powerful motivator,” she said. “I would think okay, I’ve done hard work before, so I can do this. I’ve worked in other places before and I know that veterinary medicine is what I want to do and not an office job, which I’d tried and didn’t really like. So I knew I had to work really hard to set myself up for success.”

Because of her previous work at a feline-only clinic, she quickly became known as “the cat lady” around the campus. “Anytime we were working with cats in the lab, I was always the first one who wanted to volunteer for something,” she said. This experience also allowed her to be one of a few select students who worked with Bali, the young snow leopard from Roanoke's Mill Mountain Zoo who received ophthalmological care at the teaching hospital in 2013.

Although Wootton pursued the small animal track while at the college, one of her most memorable rotations was working on production medicine. “I grew up on a farm but never really did any work with production animals,” she said. “But I thought that rotation was really great because we all had to work together a lot, help each other a lot, and none of us were really experts in what we were doing, so we were learning a ton.”

Jessica Wootton (DVM '13) with leopard
In 2013, then-student Jessica Wootton (right) was one of a small group of students selected to work with Bali, a young snow leopard from Roanoke’s Mill Mountain Zoo.

Wootton also unexpectedly discovered many similarities between working with cats and working with horses while on the equine field services rotation. “I know it sounds kind of weird, but I feel that I did pretty well with that because I had a lot of experience with cats,” she said. “I felt like there was a lot of similarities in the way that we talked to the clients on the equine side, and just reading the animal’s body language was a lot like what I had already done with cats.”

When Wootton was preparing to graduate, a job happened to open at the NOVA Cat Clinic where she had previously worked as a veterinary assistant. “I hesitated a little going into something that’s so specific with my first job, but I just love it—I love working with just cats. I love where I work, my boss, my co-workers, and how everybody is really passionate about cats and handling them well and dealing with the clients.” She continued, “It wasn’t the plan, but it definitely worked out.”

Wootton also has a lot of gratitude for her experience at the veterinary college and the opportunities that experience has afforded her.

“I feel like our vet school really prepared me for what I’m doing now,” she added. “I think part of it is because we had a really great group of students in our class and I made some really, really wonderful lifetime friends. Even when I was doing things with the production animals or horses that doesn’t really relate to what I’m doing daily now, I feel like those experiences really helped prepare me.”

Even though she ultimately chose cats over the arts, Wootton, now a resident of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, takes the train to New York City to see a Broadway show or two every few months. She also enjoys traveling, cooking, reading, yoga, and trying new restaurants when she’s not working at the clinic.

Written by Kelsey Foster, a master’s degree student in the Department of Communication in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

Jessica Wootton (DVM '13) and team
Wootton and her colleagues at the NOVA Cat Clinic pose with Tuna, star of the Amazing Acro-Cats, which made a recent appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.