Nomenclature nuisances

Four-letter pet peeves and other veterinary vocabulary vexations

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Pets are not our personal representatives. They are not our charms. Objectifying them as such insults their dignity as sentient beings.

Delve deeply into that veterinary-addled brain of yours and dig up Animal Farm by George Orwell. In this scathing satire of humanity, Orwell wrote, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Even in my capacity as animal doctor (and student of humanity), I can attest that Orwell was onto something. Animals and animal-related things (read: veterinary) are too often relegated to our vocabulary’s land of the trivial and lesser than.

It may not resonate with you, but as a pet health writer, I have this thing about animal-, pet- and especially vet-related words. Seems to me the English language has a way of being unfair to them all.

Why? This terminology often strikes me as disparaging, disdainful and otherwise disrespectful to companion animals. Then there are the veterinary terms we haggle over. Though I’m sure that few of you will agree with all of my vocabulary-based “pet” peeves, here goes …

“Fur kids,” “fur babies,” “pet parents,” “dog Mom,” cat Daddy,” etc.

Let’s face it: They’re animals. They are not our babies. Humanizing them is not only disrespectful, treating them like little people also sets up conditions whereby unreasonable expectations are set for pets, their people and those who care for them.

As to “pet parent”: There’s no good word for what we are to one another. While I recognize that “owner” in no way captures the essence of our modern relationship to pets, “pet parent” seems oddly patronizing and strangely inappropriate.

So what about pet “guardian,” “custodian” or “steward”? Or how about a made-up term like “powner” or “petstodian”? More apropos, perhaps, but not really catchy, are they? “Owner” is, at least, legally correct (for better or worse).

Then there’s the “Mom” and “Dad” thing. I’ll confess: We use these terms all the time in our clinic. I’ll even use the term “Daddy” at home when I’m telling our dogs to mind my boyfriend (“Violet, go with Daddy!”) or when I’m talking to my patients in their owner’s presence (“Snowy, is your Mom awesome or what?”).

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I do, however, pointedly refuse to call my clients “Mom” or Dad” in normal conversation the way my pediatrician’s people do. As in, “Hi Mom, it’s time to make an appointment for Armando.” I am not your mom, lady. After all, it’s kind of unprofessional to ask “Mom” if she’s ready to pay the bill, right?

Pets are not our personal representatives. They are not our charms. Objectifying them as such insults their dignity as sentient beings. Their worth should in no way be described—in words, thoughts or deeds—in terms of their attachment to humans. (Full circle back to the smarmy “fur kids” thing.)

Psychology versus behavior

On the subject of humanization, here’s a can of worms for you: Animals are not humans, but they’re not unfeeling, either. So why do we insist on referring to the vast spectrum of problematic animal behaviors with the blanket term, “behavior medicine”? Are not at least some of these (if not all) psychological in nature?

I believe this particular choice of terminology takes the fear of humanizing animals to an unhealthy extreme. In my opinion, it also reflects the veterinary profession’s reluctance to discuss emotions and feelings. It’s a perfect example of how we as a community ignore these inconvenient human truths—in our own lives, too—at our own collective peril.

“Bad dog” or “bad cat”

There’s a great sign in my neighborhood that crystallizes how I feel about this terminology: “Good dog. Bites bad people!”

In my estimation, dogs and cats don’t necessarily possess the cognition to be “bad” or “good.” Which is why it irks me when I hear anyone refer to an animal as “bad” or “mean.” In fact, at our place, that kind of talk is flat-out disallowed. All it does is set up an adversarial mindset that can lead to rough handling and more adverse interactions. As I like to say, low-stress handling starts with low-stress thinking.

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Truth is, there are happy, easygoing patients, there are angry, terrified patients and there’s everything in between. But there are no bad pets.

Technician versus nurse

Here’s a doozy we’re currently disputing … again. In this case, I personally don’t believe it matters much, as both terms are good ones. Because nurse is the more commonly employed word in human medicine some think it’s more respectful. I think there are more interesting terms to be concerned about, but my role as veterinarian and not “support staff ” may be blinkering me.

Team terminology

“Team” versus “staff ” is a big one we tend to get caught up with. But I’m more concerned with the issue of calling them my support personnel. To borrow a football metaphor, I may be the quarterback, but that doesn’t make them my support team. Not as the veterinarian on the team. They’re only my team if I sign their paychecks. And, even then, because I’m practicing alongside them, it’s more appropriate to think of myself as being on the team, too.

Then there’s the stupid stuff we tend to say because we’re stuck in the ’50s or something: “the girls up front,” “the kids in the kennel” or “the boys in the back.” They’re equally distasteful, and I wish we’d all stop doing it. It trivializes their role and, as a confidence-killer and self-esteem sap, it prevents them from being more accountable and taking on more responsibility.

Counterproductive terms

There are a bunch of these out there. Consider the “cone of shame.” The movie “Up” may have invented this one, but we were the ones who ran with it. Sure, it’s super funny (yes I’m talking to you, Andy), but it may not be the ideal term if you want clients to comply. “Comfy cone” or “recovery cone” is probably better, especially after that recent Wall Street Journal  piece highlighting how indispensable the cone is to modern petdom.

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“Cage” versus “kennel,” “pulling” versus “extracting,” “vet” versus “veterinarian,” a “dental procedure” versus a “dentistry” or “dental cleaning,” etc., etc., etc.

What we call ourselves

I once got a lot of well-deserved flak for dissing the way some veterinarians like to be called. “Dr. Patty” just seemed so, well … smarmy—as in unctuous, ingratiating or wheedling. I just never warmed to it. But I’ve since had a change of heart. As long as the hospital culture that spawned the term is professional and the term doesn’t diminish the veterinarian’s respect in the eyes of his/her clients or fellow team members, who am I to judge?

One last “pet” peeve

Finally, we should probably address the fact that “pet” is a terrible term, too. Sure, it technically means “dear one” or something along those lines, it also implies a lesser status or even subservience. Not my favorite, just as “mascota” in Spanish conjures up those oversized plush animal costume-creatures we embarrass ourselves with at sporting events. I mean, who’s more equal that who in this context?

Dr. Patty Khuly owns a small animal practice in Miami and is a passionate blogger at drpattykhuly.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.


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