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Veterinary Medical Terminology 101

Alex loves animals and is an experienced licensed veterinary technician with a BS in Biology and an AS in Veterinary Technology.

This graphic goes in to more detail than is needed for a basic understanding, but it provides a good visual representation of the planes in place on a dog.

This graphic goes in to more detail than is needed for a basic understanding, but it provides a good visual representation of the planes in place on a dog.

Veterinary Vs. Human Medicine

One of the first things you'll notice is there are a lot of similarities between veterinary and human medicine. However, they are not 100% interchangeable. One of the most notable differences is in terms of direction on the body. Another difference comes with the shorthand for directions for medications. One difference that I always found interesting what the term catheter.

When most people think of catheters they think of a urinary catheter. When most people in veterinary medicine use the term catheter they are referring to an IV catheter. When the average person refers to an IV catheter they just call it an IV.


If you don't have an interest in studying veterinary medicine to become a veterinarian or a veterinary technician, why should you learn veterinary medical terminology? To be able to better communicate with and understand your veterinarian. A good veterinarian will use terms that you will be able to understand and will not talk above your head, however there are some things that easier for pet parents to understand if they have a basic knowledge of medical terminology. Also, it makes it a lot easier for your veterinary team to determine what is wrong with your pet if you are able to tell them.

Keep this in mind, pet insurance is becoming more popular. Many pet insurance companies require patient records to be sent with claims. If the pet owner is able to understand what is written in the records they will have a better understanding of the claim they are submitting and will be more informed when discussing the case with the insurance company if need be.

Direction and Areas of the Body

If you think of the body as having several different lines dividing into halves and quarters it becomes easy to understand directional terminology. Cranial, means towards the head. Caudal is towards to tail. Dorsal means towards the back. Ventral means towards the stomach. When describing something on head the term rostral means towards the nose. On the head you cannot use cranial as the head is the cranium. Distal means away while proximal means near. The axillary area is where the armpits are.

The body is also further broken down as follows. As we have already covered the head is the cranium. The chest is the thorax while the area between the thorax and the pelvis, that contains most of the major organs, is the abdomen. The limbs are labeled as forelimbs, for the pair that connect to the thorax, and the hindlimb for the pair that attach at the pelvis. The limbs are also labeled slightly differently, the top side is still referred to as dorsal while the bottom side (the side that would be in contact with the ground) is referred to as palmer.

The spinal column runs the length of the animals body cranially to caudally. The spinal column is divided into specific sections. The cervical spine is the neck portion. The thoracic spine is the section of vertebrae found in the thorax, they are also associated with the rib case. Further down is the lumbar vertebrae, where the abdomen is. The next section is the sacral spine, which runs through the pelvis. And the last section is the tail, which contains the caudal vertebrae.

The joints on animals have different names that human joints. The knee, the joint on the hindlimb that bends as the animal walks, is called the stifle. The ankle, the joint that connect the leg to the paw on the hind limb, is called the tarsus. The individual bones running through the foot are metatarsals. The joint that connects the front paw to the front limb is called the carpus. As such, the individual bones running through these feet are called metacarpals. The elbow is the elbow.

Using the directional terms with the anatomical terms it is possible to give the exact location of something of interest on the body.

For example: If Fluffy has a mass on top side of her left ear near the tip you would say the mass is distal on the dorsal side of the left ear. Or using this phrase, located ventrally on the thorax proximal to the sternum, you will know that the area of interest is on the underside of the chest near the sternum.

This is a very basic canine skeleton to help give you a visual of where the various anatomical landmarks are located on the body.

This is a very basic canine skeleton to help give you a visual of where the various anatomical landmarks are located on the body.


In veterinary medicine shorthand can really save a lot of time. It allows for the team to communicate with each other quickly and efficiently. However, shorthand should not be used when giving directions to pet owners. That being said, I have seen prescriptions that have been sent to outside pharmacy that use veterinary shorthand. Some of these abbreviations are not the same as human medicine and this can cause some confusion for the pet owners or pharmacists.

Eyes: OD= right eye OS= left eye OU= both eyes

Ears: AD= right ear OS=left ear AU= both ears

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SID= once daily

BID= twice daily

TID= three times daily

QID= four times daily

EOD= every other day

PO= by mouth

SQ or SC= subcutaneously

PRN= as needed

IM= intramuscularly

IV= intravenously


If you are leaving the vet and need to have an rx filled at your local pharmacy and it reads: Instill 1 drop OD BID for 14 days. It means instill one drop in the right eye every 12 hours for 14 days.

A label that reads: 1 tab PO BID 7 days, 1 tab PO SID 7 days, 1 tab PO EOD 7 days. If means you will give 1 tablet by mouth every 12 hours for 7 days, then you will give 1 tablet by mouth every 24 hours for 7 days, and finally you will give 1 tablet by mouth every other day for 7 days.

See how much time and space using the shorthand saved? See how confusing it can be to the pet owner? Shorthand is great for the veterinary team to communicate with each other but not so great for communicating with pet owners, pharmacies, or medical records. Why not medical records? Take a look at this: HWT. If you are familiar with veterinary medicine you can most likely workout that it has something to do with heartworms. Does it mean heart worm treatment? Or is it heartworm test? That's the point. Some hospitals may use it when referring to a heartworm test while others use it for treatment. Since it is able to be confused it is not considered to be a standard abbreviation and should therefore not be used in medical records.


I hope this basic rundown of veterinary medical terms was helpful. I know if can be confusing if you are not used to hearing these words and phrases on the daily basis. If you are interested in learning more terminology I will have other, more specialized, articles posted soon.

© 2020 isharkbait

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