Medical terminology can seem deliberately baffling, as if set up as a code that can only be deciphered by those with medical training. Yet when the words are explained in plain English, there's rarely any complex or mysterious meaning behind them. The veterinary world is no different from the human medical world in this respect.
One of the challenges that I enjoy about my job is translating veterinary jargon into everyday words, and explaining illnesses clearly so that an owner can more easily understand what's going on with their pet.
Some medical and veterinary terms are so widely used in our daily language that everybody is familiar with hearing them, yet often we still wonder what they mean. "Inflammation" is a good example: most people have heard of it, but they may not understand that it describes how the body reacts to injuries or illness: technically, it means heat, pain, swelling, redness and loss of function. Any part of the body can be affected.
Last month, I came across another example. I was examining a Golden Retriever, Sam, who had cut the tip of his tail tip on a sharp piece of metal sheet. He is a typical Retriever, who wags his tail a lot, and so although there was only a slow drip of blood from the cut, he had managed to spray his surroundings with blood, wherever he went. His owner's kitchen walls were first decorated with red dots, then the back of the car, on the way to the vet. She had tried to put a dressing of some kind on the tail, but his enthusiastic tail wagging kept shaking this off. And so the bleeding continued. He sprayed our waiting room, and as he walked into my consulting room, he started to decorate the walls there with blood too. A nurse helped me to restrain his wildly wagging tail, and soon we had managed to apply a secure, wag-proof bandage to stop the bleeding.
His owner was worried about his blood loss. From the number of red spots and splashes he had left on his surroundings, surely he could not have much blood left inside him.
I reassured her after checking Sam: "His mucous membranes look pink, so I am not too worried. Sprayed blood often looks like more than it really is".
Her reply surprised me "What do you mean?"
I belatedly realised that I had lapsed into veterinary jargon without even realising it. So she wanted to know what I meant by mucous membranes, and why should it be good that they are pink?
I had to take it back a stage: what is a membrane? The dictionary definition states that this is "a thin sheet of tissue acting as a boundary, lining, or partition in an organism."
There are four different types of membranes in the living body: cutaneous, serous, synovial and mucous.
The cutaneous membrane is the scientific name for the skin: it separates the body from the outside environment.
Serous membranes line the inside of the body, such as the chest and the abdomen, as well as covering the outside of most organs, such as the lungs, intestines etc. When you incise into an animal's body during an operation, everything you see inside the body is covered in serous membranes.
Synovial membranes line the joints between bones, secreting synovial fluid, keeping joints well lubricated and healthy.
And so, finally, to mucous membranes: these form the linings of the insides of many organs (from the stomach to intestines to lungs and mouth and bladder). They provide the main barrier between the external world and the inside of the body, taking over where the skin stops.
In an adult human the total surface area of the mucous membranes is about 400 square meters, compared to the surface area of the skin which is just around two square meters. Typically, mucous membranes produce a secretion known as mucus, which is a slippery, jelly-like substance which lubricates the surface, preventing it from drying out.
Mucus contains a wide range of constituents, including special defensive cells and chemicals from the immune system. Part of the function of mucus is to protect the underlying membrane from substances like gastric acid (in the stomach) and urine (in the bladder) as well as external threats like dirt and bacteria (in places like the lining of the eye and mouth).
The mucous membranes form visible junctions with the skin at the nostrils, the lips, the eyelids, the ears, the genital area, and the anus.
So back to my owner: what did I mean when I said that Sam's mucous membranes looked pink? I was referring to the colour of his tongue and gums, as well as the fleshy lining of the eye which you can see by pulling down the lower eyelids. Vets use these areas to get a quick assessment about an animal's general health. These membranes should be a "salmon pink" colour. Some illnesses can make them turn deep red, they can go bluish in some conditions, and if a dog loses a lot of blood, they appear pale or even white. So healthy pink mucous membranes are a good sign in a dog that has lost an unknown amount of blood.
Sam had to have the wound on his tail sutured; the bleeding stopped, and his injury healed well.
And his owner now has a healthy understanding of mucous membranes.