Vets Like BIG Words

Complicated words are a vetish fetish.

Veterinarians seem to like big words. When asked at parties what we do for a living, do we say we are vets? Nope, we are vet-er-in-ar-i-ans.

Either way, we’d be better off claiming to be plumbers to avoid a consult on Fluffycat’s skin condition in the buffet line. Do people ask plumbers how to fix their taps at parties? They probably do.

The fascination with big words is a helpful bent for vet students. Their brains need to be stuffed with thousands of polysyllabic mouthfuls like histopathology just to pass board exams. This is only a problem when the words tumble out at unsuspecting clients. What the heck did the vet-er-in-ar-i-an say?

Here are a few of my favourite big vet words.

“Anthropomorphism” means thinking animals have human traits such as complex reasoning abilities. It is what you suffer from when you tell the vet your cats can tell time and are plotting amongst themselves to keep you awake all night by asking for food every hour. You mustn’t anthropomorphize about your kitties, Mrs. Catsrula. Everyone knows cats would never co-operate like that.

Your vet might casually toss the word “idiopathic” into a discussion about Rover’s seizures. This is often followed by a lame joke we are taught at vet school that idiopathic means we’re “idiots” because we can’t find a cause. Clients laugh when we say this, but they’re just being polite. The word basically means “cause unknown.” Idiopathic epilepsy involves seizures that are not caused by a specific disease.

One big word your vet never wants to have to use is “iatrogenic” which means her treatment is responsible for causing some sort of illness or symptom in your pet. If you are Greek, you might know the root “iatros” means physician. Iatrogenic Cushing’s disease is a not uncommon hormonal illness that can be caused by the anti-inflammatory steroid prednisone. Sometimes iatrogenic side-effects are unavoidable, so don’t call your lawyer just because you hear the word.

A colleague I mention from time to time, Dr. Scott Weese, uses the word “zoonotic” a lot. He’s an infectious disease specialist and when animal illnesses cross the line to infect people, out comes the zoo word. Dr. Weese often tangles with reptile enthusiasts because their pets carry salmonella which can cause serious zoonotic illness in people.

He also recently wrote about the dangers of letting kids pet animals at fall fairs as they may pick up a zoonosis. At least get them to use hand sanitizer afterwards.
There are lots of other vetish terms that can stymie pet owners. Alopecia just means hair loss. The comb-over was invented for men with idiopathic alopecia. Lethargic or somnolent is how you’ll feel after a big Thanksgiving dinner and how your dog may act when he’s sick from eating your leftovers.

Dr. Steen here. I couldn’t resist adding my favourite word, “obstreperous”, which means stubbornly resistant to control. This applies to the somewhat cranky kitties that we occasionally have to deal with in the hospital.

There are way too many big words in veterinary medicine to do them justice here. If your vet spouts the incomprehensible, ask him to speak plainly. But if you ask advice at a party, you may want a dictionary.

Dr. Fiona Gilchrist
Hillcrest Animal Hospital – Quinte West/Trenton, Ontario
September 2013