NEW ALEXANDRIA, VA. — Like many of us, Katy Nelson wasn’t sure what she wanted to be when she grew up. After graduating from Louisiana State University in the early 2000s with a Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine (DVM), she found her calling and embarked on what would become a diverse career spanning general and emergency practice, veterinary journalism, marketing consulting, and now, veterinary relations with Chewy, Inc. Today, her work revolves around advocating for the importance and accessibility of veterinary care.
“Don't be afraid to make changes if what you're doing isn't working for you: professionally, financially, or emotionally,” she said. “...Find what brings you the most joy about our chosen field and figure out what you need to do, and who you need to know, to get there.”
In the following Q&A, Katy Nelson, DVM, senior veterinarian at Chewy, tells the story of how she went from a pre-med student to a veterinary journalist to one of the first on-staff veterinarians with Chewy, and shares advice for other aspiring pet industry leaders.
PFP: How did you get your start in the pet industry, and how did that experience lead you to where you are now?
Nelson: I’ve been a veterinarian for 22 years, after graduating from Louisiana State University in 2001. Since I graduated, I’ve had a lot of opportunities in different areas of veterinary medicine. I’ve been in private practice, corporate setting, the emergency room, worked with the media, and had my own marketing consultancy.
Getting to my current position took the long way around. Beginning around 2008/2009, I started working with PetMD on creating videos. For the first few, I went to New York City and filmed three or four videos. We ended up filming over 200 videos. In 2019, after Chewy purchased PetMD, I got a call from the PetMD editorial staff. They wanted to know if I was interested in continuing to do videos. I said yes. Then they called and asked if I would consider joining Chewy as an on-staff veterinarian, and I’ve been part of the team ever since.
PFP: What has been your biggest challenge — personal or professional — related to your work in the pet industry?
Nelson: My biggest challenge was basically figuring out what I wanted to do with my life. Growing up, I don’t think I knew what I wanted to do. I actually started in pre-med in college but after working in a zoo animal hospital over the summer between my freshman and sophomore year, I did some serious reevaluating. I grew up on a farm, surrounded by animals, and realized a future of helping animals may be a much more fulfilling career for me, so I applied and went to vet school.
When I graduated, I was 24 and didn’t really know what options there were in the veterinarian industry. I started out in a typical clinic giving shots and spays/neuters, but I knew within a few months that I wanted to do something slightly different. Veterinarians who work in clinics are managing not only a lot of repetition, but the emotions and communication with pet parents can be overwhelming, often feeling like a second job. I called my advisor and asked if I should go to law school or something. He said I needed time under my belt, so I stayed in practice. Two or three years later, I called back, and he said I should start looking for corporate positions.
My first corporate position was at Iams, where I moved to Washington, DC, and supported a sales territory. They wanted me to write articles and speak at conferences. I realized this was fun and I liked the diversity of work. I loved collaborating with my colleagues and educating vets on how to use things like MRI and animal nutrition with Iams. That was the beginning of the path that I’m still on, now at Chewy focusing on veterinary relations for Chewy Health.
PFP: Tell me about a professional accomplishment in the pet industry that you are proud of.
Nelson: I produced and hosted my own television show in the DC area for eight years. The Pet Show with Dr. Katy was so much fun, so much work, but so satisfying to be a part of. We focused on pet and pet parent health, nonprofits, cool products, one health legislation, and shelters and rescues. It stretched from 2012 to 2020 and I would likely still be working weekly on this had I not started with Chewy in 2020. Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to explore plenty of additional outlets for communicating healthy advice and advocating for pets on behalf of Chewy.
PFP: If you could pick three trends influencing the industry today, which are the most important and why?
Nelson: Our industry is making great strides when it comes to connecting with patients outside of a clinic setting. COVID introduced the need for things like curbside and telehealth and, since then, pet parents have shown us there’s a great demand for ongoing services like these. Whether it’s via Connect with a Vet by Chewy or an actual phone call or Zoom, veterinarians and clients love the convenience and I believe changes like this are here to stay.
A trend that worries me is burnout among veterinary professionals. So many veterinarians are leaving the exam rooms, and it’s important that we as an industry address the problem before we lose great doctors to other fields. Whether it’s providing different ways of offering veterinary service or supporting programs that offer the right resources, the responsibility falls to all of us to improve the experience of being a veterinarian.
Finally, the veterinarian industry is already America’s whitest profession, and people who live in urban areas have deserts of veterinary care, just like there are food deserts and hospital deserts. Some can’t access veterinary care at all, and I worry that with declining applications, this will only get worse. We need to figure out how to draw in more representation and cultivate more diversity in veterinary medicine. We have a long way to go to get there, but at Chewy Health, we are taking steps to support efforts here. Recently, our head of Chewy Health, Mita Malhotra, joined the board of the Diversify Veterinary Medicine Coalition and our veterinary relations team is hard at work with more support to come.
PFP: What is something about the pet industry that people outside of the industry may not realize?
Nelson: Veterinarian medicine is very emotionally taxing. Most people look at this profession as all fun and snuggles, and we are lucky enough to have days like that, but there’s a lot more to it. Our clients’ struggles are our struggles, and there is a tremendous amount of empathy required to do a job like this.
PFP: What advice would you give to young people starting their careers in this industry?
Nelson: Learning healthy habits early on is very important. This job can be very emotionally and physically taxing. One day you’re down on the ground rolling around with a 150-lb. Great Dane trying to clip a nail, and another you may be in a room with someone saying goodbye to their pet. Prioritize your physical and mental health through things like therapy, the support of your community, and your own daily habits in order to preserve your wellbeing. This can be an incredibly fulfilling job, but it is one in which you must find a way to put yourself first in order to put the best version of yourself in front of your patients.
PFP: Just for fun, do you consider yourself a dog person or a cat person? Or, if you have pets of your own, tell us a little bit about them.
Nelson: I’ve never been able to choose! What I love about cats is that they are so funny and quirky, often treating us like their “staff.” On the other hand, what I love about dogs is that we’re the very center of their universe and they love us unconditionally. I’ve had some amazing cats and dogs in my life but for now, I have just one dog who keeps our family plenty busy.
PFP: Any final advice for other women in the pet industry?
Nelson: It took me a long time to figure out my exact place in this industry. Don’t give up until you do. Don’t be afraid to try new and crazy things (like pitching your own show with zero hosting experience to a television station, or going to work for a company that had never had veterinarians on staff before). Don’t be afraid to make changes if what you’re doing isn’t working for you: professionally, financially, or emotionally. We went into this field because of a love of animals and a desire to make a positive change in the world; don’t wall yourself in by believing that there is only one way to do that. Find what brings you the most joy about our chosen field and figure out what you need to do, and who you need to know, to get there.
Katy Nelson, DVM, started her career in veterinary medicine as an associate emergency veterinarian at Alexandria Animal Hospital, and has since leveraged her veterinary knowledge in a diverse range of roles, including veterinary and pet media. She joined Chewy in 2020 as a senior veterinary consultant and today serves as associate director of veterinary relations for the pet e-commerce brand. Nelson is a certified veterinary journalist and currently sits on the board of directors for the Animal Welfare League of Arlington, Va. She earned her bachelor’s degree in zoology/animal biology from Louisiana Christian University, followed by her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from Louisiana State University.
Continue reading about other female leaders featured in our Women in the Pet Industry series.