What’s In A Name? On ‘Slumdogs’ And ‘Spays’ In Veterinary Medicine

He’s a pug-like puppy-mill disaster fresh off the Miami streets. And his name is Slumdog.

I’ve got this new dog. He’s a pug-like puppy-mill disaster fresh off the Miami streets. And his name is Slumdog.

After a lifetime of naming my pets human-style, I can’t help feeling I’ve somehow devolved now that I’ve just named one after a pseudo-ethnic epithet.

“What’s wrong with Billy?” my mother offered by way of not-so-subtle coercion, “or even Mumbai?” (one of his nicknames). What can I say? Slumdog just named himself. It happens. You use it once by accident and it never goes away.

For good reason, you might agree, after observing his severe angular/rotational limb deformities, ventrolateral strabismus, exophthalmia and just plain “poor adherence to breed standard.”

He’s a mess. I know it. And you didn’t even get to see him before the generalized demodecosis and severe flea/hookworm anemia/malnutrition. Nor do you have the benefit of observing his downright dirty habits and bizarre behavioral tics.

It happens to us all at one time or another when it comes to names. And you’ve seen it in your clients with respect to their name choices.

Like when clients name their animals “S**t-head,” “Lil’ Hitler” or “Fubar” and somehow think it’s funny. And as long as they responsibly care for them and shower them with love, who are we to judge? It’s probably no worse than Slumdog, anyway. (OK, the Hitler thing is more distasteful.)

That’s what finally got me thinking about how it is that we in the veterinary profession might be similarly guilty. And this time, it’s not about how some of us would give our pets misbegotten terms of endearment.

Nope. It’s about how we would happily label our  most important service offerings with outdated, inappropriate words that we’d do well to keep in mind the next time we use them in our medical records.

Consider the simple “spay” and the lowly “neuter.” They sound so trivial and mundane because we persist in using these dubiously appropriate noms de guerre––perhaps making them seem more accessible? Because of course we want to encourage our clients and all pet owners to alter their pets. (There’s another one for you.) But do we really believe we’re achieving our goal in so doing?

All we manage when we resist calling ovariohysterectomy (or ovariectomy, as the case may be) and castration (why not testiculectomy?) by their rightful terms, we risk trivializing our not-so-easy gonadectomies.

Think about it. Would you pay $600 to “spay” your 6-year-old Rottweiler bitch if you didn’t know any better? I mean, it’s “just a spay.”

Then there’s the obvious to ponder:

Can you imagine going into the OB/GYN one year and being told they’re going to have to “spay” you? Ever wonder why they wouldn’t? I do.

I guess it has something to do with the etymology of the word and the sensitivity of the act of performing a full ovariohysterectomy on a woman. From the Online Etymology Dictionary, here’s the source of the word:

spay c.1410, “stab with a sword, kill,” also “remove the ovaries of,” from Anglo-Fr. espeier “cut with a sword,” from M.Fr. espeer, from O.Fr. espee “sword” (Fr. épée), from L. spatha “broad, flat weapon or tool,” from Gk. spathe “broad blade” (see spade (1).

Kinda insensitive to be throwing around sword-fighting terminology when it’s time for a delicate bit of surgery. Especially when it’s one that targets the female reproductive tract.

The veterinary origins of the Middle English or Anglo-French word “spay” still elude. But women would never stand for any word that implies violence done to their inner workings. It stands to reason that some veterinarians wouldn’t like it, either, when applied to their patients.

Yet we’ve long passed the point where the brutality this four-letter word connotes holds any sway with its modern users. No, for me the insult is in the way the word has evolved to trivialize the deeply complex act of removing female organs.

In fact, I’d argue the same for the term “neuter”––as in:

neuter (adj.) 1398, of grammatical gender, “neither masculine nor feminine,” from L. neuter, lit. “neither one nor the other,” from ne- “not, no” (see un-) + uter “either (of two);” probably a loan-translation of Gk. oudeteros “neither, neuter.” In 16c., it had the sense of “taking neither side, neutral.” The verb is 1903, from the adj., originally in ref. to pet cats.

The need to distinguish animals in terms of reproductive surgical terminology is as old as the words “gelding,” “shoat” and “capon,” but somehow they all seem outdated in this new age of veterinary medicine. Even in veterinary school, it seemed incongruous to have to memorize common agricultural terms only to superimpose a complex but rational medical lexicon.

Perhaps that’s why the terms “spay” and “neuter” seem to run afoul of the rest of our medicine. In a world where chronic renal failure, inflammatory bowel disease and osteosarcoma are bandied about with absolute precision, how can we continue to write “spay” and “neuter” on our medical records?

The truth is that the need to euphemize is just as old as our desire to define and categorize. By applying vulgar terms to even the most distasteful practices, we were able to bring these animals to the dinner table with a minimum of human stress.

It makes sense that we would continue to use the word “steer,” for example, when we refer to a castrated male of the bovine species. It makes it all so much easier to take when we eat him. Similarly, spaying and neutering is oh-so-much-more palatable to the average pet owner when we can circumvent the reality of the procedure with a simple verbal twist.

But is that fair to veterinarians?

Given that we work so hard to learn how to do what people think of as a “simple spay,” given that the public expects this procedure to be far less complex (and less expensive) than it really is, and given that the dubiously euphemistic verb “to spay” might also serve to minimize our education and experience, some veterinarians say, ”No way!”

Yet when you also consider the widespread human irresponsibility with respect to spays and neuters in our companion animal population, doesn’t it only make sense to make the procedure seem more accessible and less clinical than it really is?

Sometimes I think so. But I don’t have to like it. No more than I have to like saccharine terms like “pet parent” and “fur children” or culturally distasteful names like “Adolf” and “Fidel.” (I’m Cuban, so it smarts.)

Given the plethora of poorly applied terms in evidence everywhere, I’m beginning to think “Slumdog” ain’t too bad.


Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA, is a small-animal practitioner in Miami and a passionate blogger at www.dolittler.com. She earned her veterinary degree in 1995 and her business degree from Wharton in 1997.

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