Ten Confusing Medical Terms Your Veterinarian Might Use

Confusing Medical TermsFor 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.

Pancreatitis in Dogs

pancreatitis in dogsThe pancreas is a thin, elongated organ that is shaped a bit like a pounded piece of chicken tenderloin. The pancreas lies along the initial portion of the small intestine called the duodenum. As the bile duct leaves the gall bladder, it traverses the pancreas before it enters the duodenum. The pancreas is probably best known for producing insulin, the hormone deficient in patients with diabetes. The pancreas also produces digestive enzymes essential for breakdown of food into its nutrient component parts.

-itis = inflammation
When a body part is inflamed, the suffix “-itis” modifies the root word to indicate the disease process of inflammation. Tennis elbow is really inflammation of the elbow bone and in doctor speak is epicondylitis. Inflammation of the appendix is appendicitis. Inflammation of the pancreas is pancreatitis. Pancreatitis is the most common condition of the dog and cat pancreas.

Causes of pancreatitis in dogs
The exact trigger for pancreatic inflammation in dogs is elusive. High fat meals, such as one obtained illicitly from the kitchen trash can are often blamed. Miniature Schnauzers are a dog breed with an increased risk of pancreatitis. Some diseases, like diabetes, hyperadrenocorticism and hypothyroidism increase a dog’s risk for pancreatitis. Blunt force trauma, like an automobile accident or a fall from a height can injure the pancreas and set off the inflammatory cascade. Whatever the cause of the inflammation, it promotes release of the digestive enzymes from the pancreatic cells. The enzyme release worsens the inflammation and also the clinical signs.

Clinical signs of pancreatitis
Pancreatitis can be either an acute fulminant illness or a more insidious, chronic problem. The list of clinical signs attributed to pancreatitis is quite long: vomiting, anorexia, weakness, dehydration, abdominal pain and fever. Dogs may assume a “praying” position with their elbows on the floor and their rump held high. Veterinarians interpret this as a response of the dog to abdominal pain. Since the major signs of pancreatitis are nonspecific, vomiting and anorexia, a battery of blood tests, x-rays, and an abdominal ultrasound may be necessary to establish a diagnosis of pancreatitis.

Treatment of pancreatitis
There is no specific treatment for pancreatitis like there are antibiotics for bacterial infection. Veterinarians treat dehydration with fluids, control vomiting with anti-nausea medications, and manage pain with pain medications. We also rest the gastrointestinal tract of patients with pancreatitis by withholding food and water until the vomiting ceases, followed by a low fat, bland diet. Dogs may take several days to recover from a serious case of pancreatitis.

To help prevent pancreatitis, restrict your dog’s intake of human foods, especially fatty ones. There will be less dieting for him in the new year and hopefully no pancreatitis to spoil his fun.