April 17, 2019 Blog Everyday Medicine

Ten Confusing Medical Terms Your Veterinarian Might Use

A small, brown poodle with a perplexed look

Ten Confusing Medical Terms Your Veterinarian Might Use

For the past several months, I’ve been collating a list of complex words I’ve used when talking to pet families. These are words that provoke a quizzical look or a clarifying question from a family member during a conversation about pet health care. In this blog post, I do my best to define this confounding terms and hopefully help you demystify some common “vet-speak”!

  1. Anorexia has a bad connotation from its association with the human disorder, anorexia nervosa. When your veterinarian makes a note in a medical record that says “anorexia for 4 days,” the notation simply indicates that the pet is not eating. It does not mean that your pet has been diagnosed with an eating disorder.
  2. Dehiscence is the term used to describe a surgical incision that has fallen apart. While this sounds serious, most incisions are multi-layered, and it’s often only the outer layer of skin that comes undone. The most common cause of dehiscence is the pet owner’s reluctance to use an Elizabethan collar, or cone, to protect the incision.
  3. Fasting is common enough that most pet families will understand it in principle, but it’s important to know the specifics. Does fasting mean no food AND no water, or just no food? Be sure to ask this question if your veterinarian is not clear.
  4. General anesthesia indicates that the entire patient is anesthetized. If anesthesia is not general it’s local, meaning just one specific site. Veterinarians don’t use local anesthesia as much as physicians do. A common example of local anesthesia is the lidocaine injection you get at the dentist.
  5. Incontinence describes one of two conditions: inability to control urination or inability to control defecation. Veterinarians diagnose urinary incontinence more often than fecal incontinence. The most common cases of urinary incontinence involve older female dogs who leak urine when they sleep.
  6. Inflammation describes the body’s response to disease or injury. The cardinal signs of inflammation were defined by the 1st-century Roman encyclopaedist, Celsus, as calor, dolor, rubor and tumor (heat, pain, redness and swelling). This four-word summary is applicable to all inflammatory processes: a healing surgical incision, the area around an infected tooth or the intestine of a patient with inflammatory bowel disease.
  7. Lethargy, as defined by Dictionary.com, is: an abnormal lack of energy, especially as the result of a disease. This fits the veterinarian’s use of the word to a T. When your veterinarian asks questions about ball playing or Frisbee chasing, she is trying to determine if your dog is lethargic as part of the disease process being evaluated.
  8. Prophylaxis is an action taken to prevent a disease. For example, heartworm medication is a form of prophylaxis given to prevent heartworms and other parasites from infecting your pet. At AMC, a “prophy” is doctor speak for a dental cleaning to prevent tooth and gum disease.
  9. Responsive describes a pet’s level of consciousness and reaction to their environment. The acronym BAR is short for Bright, Alert, Responsive. A waggy, friendly dog is BAR. The lowest level of consciousness is comatose.
  10. Undetectable, one would assume, may indicate good news. If something is undetectable, it’s not there, right? Not necessarily. Your veterinarian might use this word to indicate something they’re worried about, but just can’t find yet. In incurable diseases like hemangiosarcoma, a veterinarian might say metastasis, or tumor spread, is undetectable when they can’t find any tumor using x-rays or ultrasounds. Because all dogs with hemangiosarcoma succumb to this dreadful disease, the metastases may simply be undetectable at the time of the test.

Of course, this is an incomplete list – your veterinarian may use many words you don’t understand during your visit. If this happens, remember there’s nothing wrong with asking your veterinarian for clarification, to explain something again or to provide an example.