Veterinary Vocabulary: Sounding it Out

Roxanne Hawn

I’ve been writing about veterinary medicine for close to 20 years. Even I, sometimes, have trouble understanding the vocabulary that veterinarians use. My best piece of advice is this:

Never be embarrassed to ask your veterinarian what a word means. Never.

I do it all the time. I also run home and look up definitions online, but I will ask, if I’m completely lost in a conversation.

To help you understand veterinary words, here are some tips on breaking them down into smaller pieces that might make more sense to you. Remember sounding out words when you first learned to read? It’s a little bit like that.

The 4 Parts of Medical Words

Most medical terms are made up of four parts:

  1. Root: the main part of the word that typically comes from a Greek or Latin word meaning a certain body part
  2. Prefix: comes before the root word or words that modifies the meaning, sort of like a preposition in a sentence (before / after, with / without, all / none)
  3. Suffix: comes after the root word or words to give important meaning to the root
  4. Combining vowel: links two root words or a root word and a suffix sort of like “and” in a sentence (typically the letter O or the letter A)

Veterinary Root Words

Here are some of the root words that cover many of the major body parts.

  • Cardi ~ heart
  • Cerebr ~ brain
  • Cyst ~ bladder
  • Derm(at) ~ skin
  • Enter ~ intestines
  • Gastr ~ stomach
  • Hemat ~ blood
  • Hepat ~ liver
  • Leuk ~ white
  • Myelon ~ bone marrow
  • Necr ~ death
  • Nephr ~ kidney
  • Pneum (on / at) ~ lung, air
  • Thromb ~ clot
  • Thorac ~ chest

Medical Prefixes (a few examples)

Think of prefixes as giving you context for the root word:

  • Anti / contra ~ against
  • Dys ~ difficult, labored, painful, abnormal
  • Extra ~ outside, beyond
  • Hyper ~ above, beyond, excessive
  • Hypo ~ under, deficient
  • Meta ~ after, beyond, change
  • Multi ~ many

Medical Suffixes (a few examples)

Think of suffixes as completing the root word by giving it additional meaning.

  • Ectomy ~ cut out (like surgical removal of something)
  • Ia ~ disease or abnormal state
  • Ites / itis ~ inflammation
  • Lysis ~ loosening, dissolution, separating
  • Megaly ~ enlargement
  • Odynia ~ pain
  • Pathy ~ disease
  • Ptosis ~ dropping, sagging, prolapse
  • Rrhea ~ discharge
  • Scopy / scopic ~ to examine
  • Sepsis ~ infection
  • Stasis ~ control, stop

Veterinary Vocabulary Example

Root word: Encephal (brain)
Suffix: itis (inflammation)

What’s the craziest veterinary word you’ve ever heard?

Let’s share a laugh. Are there any veterinary words that have made you think, “What on earth does that mean?”


Basic concepts of medical terminology 

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