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Jennifer Carden held Margarita tight as the speckled black-and-white stray cat tried to wriggle through the veterinarian's hands.

She never really had liked cats. She was more into exotic animals, but during these weeks of hands-on training with other Chattanooga State veterinary technician students at McKamey Animal Shelter, she has learned to appreciate them.

After wrestling with slippery felines that didn't want to be weighed, checked or vaccinated, she said she now knows better how to speak their language.

"This has been an experience in and of itself with the cats," said Ms. Carden, a 22-year-old second-year student. "They can't speak to tell you what's wrong. You have to read their signs."

Chattanooga State Community College began sending vet tech students to McKamey earlier this year to help expose them to the challenges they may face in the field after graduation.

Students work alongside veterinarians as part of their class curriculum. McKamey is one of several shelters, animal hospitals and kennels choosing to open their doors for students.

Along with McKamey, Chattanooga State recently created a partnership with Blowing Springs Kennel in Flintstone, Ga., so in-the-field course training could include training on how to discipline dogs.

"This is the most animal experience available to them," said Susie Matthews, director of the vet tech program at Chattanooga State.

Officials with the program said it has been easy to get support for student training, since many places working with animals around town are clamoring to hire hard-to-come-by vet tech graduates.

VETERINARY TECHNICIAN PROGRAMS

* There are 169 vet tech programs in the nation.

* There are three vet tech programs in Tennessee; Chattanooga State has one.

* There are 350 certified vet techs in the state.

* 24 vet tech students will enter Chattanooga State this fall.

Source: Chattanooga State

There are only 350 certified vet techs in the entire state, and Chattanooga State's five-semester program is one of three in Tennessee turning out vet techs for hire.

Karen Walsh, a certified vet tech and executive director of McKamey, said few people pursue the certification because the technical skills knowledge required can seem daunting.

"There is a big demand for this degree," Ms. Walsh said. "This is a medical degree, and it's hard to get through."

In a few weeks, Ms. Carden's work in the feral cat program will end.

The students aren't allowed to adopt animals during their time at McKamey, but when she hits the door that ban is lifted.

And Ms. Carden, who didn't used to like them, now says she's had her eyes on a few felines.

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