The 'parent' trap: talking guardianship, parenthood and ownership in veterinary medicine
No, I’m not about to launch myself back into last week’s snakepit on the issue of pets as property. Though there’s much more to be said on this worthy subject, my post today will confine itself to the use of words when it comes to talking about pets.
Words are a vet’s stock and trade. Sure, a neat row of stitches and a bounding recovery from an illness speak to our skills, too—but talk is golden. Reporting results, entertaining alternatives, allaying fears and expressing condolences (among other language logistics) is a huge part of what we do.
I’m often given to silly-speak when it comes to exam room time, anything from, “How’s my silly girl?” to, “Aren’t you a hairy little thing?” etcetera. You know the drill. It somehow comes out as this second language we use with animals which, ultimately, makes little difference to them. (After all, tone is all.) It’s only when my language devolves into inane cooing sounds that I stop myself in defense of my professional decorum.
Sometimes, however, I’ve been known to let my subconscious leak into my mouth. When referring to my patients’ humans. Nowhere is this more apparent than when I ask “Mom” or “Dad” to hold Fluffy’s wandering tail (there’s something about being slapped in the face repeatedly by an overzealous appendage that renders the use of a stethoscope 100% ineffective).
When I employ these terms (it’s now almost second nature), I sometimes notice an amused gleam in an owner’s eye. Most seem to like it OK, though the occasional gruff grunt from the WWII vet-type is enough to remind me that it’s not always a welcome form of address.
And then there’s the small issue of how to refer to clients that spawns all sorts of confusion. In fact, when I write these posts there’s something about the term “owner” that sticks in my proverbial craw. And “guardian” is so laced with political undertones that it won’t possibly do for this blog (never mind my daily life). “Parent” is the closest I come to, but it also doesn’t fit the bill in a multitude of scenarios—it, too, sounds somewhat “off.”
We’re not really parents (sounds a tad patronizing) and guardians or stewards seems so stiff and formal, right? Maybe you can help me out here. What works for you? Does your vet manage to make you feel like a million bucks with one well-turned phrase that celebrates your human-pet relationship? Please opine.