He Said, She Said: When Vets Get a Pet's Gender Wrong

Vincent dressed as a flower
Dr. Patty Khuly
If I dress my Vincent as a flower, I've only got myself to blame if someone thinks he is a she.

Are you the kind of person who takes it personally when someone mistakes your boy dog for a girl or vice versa?

As a veterinarian, I have plenty of opportunities to abuse pronouns in my place of work. Consider how often “his” and “hers” come up in casual conversation and you’ll understand: It’s not easy to be politically correct in a world of Morgans and Madisons, Codys and Cocos, Pinkys and Pandas.

A Problem of Pronouns and Pets

Pronouns — those humble stand-ins for nouns — pose a problem in plenty of veterinary settings. After all, it’s easy to get all impersonal when referring to pets in speech or writing. 

Case in point? A couple of years ago, I was assisting my son with a proposal for a sixth-grade science fair project. It was a cool topic: how pet owners from different ethnic groups perceive pain in their dogs and cats. 

Enter the problem: We had to decide whether to refer to the dogs and cats in the pet owner survey as he, she, she/he, him/her or it.

Perhaps it’s a silly example, but this conundrum just as easily could apply to my medical records, a colleague’s scholarly paper pending peer review or an article you might read online on why dogs eat grass.

But here’s the thing: If we’re going to get all science-y and technicalese-y, "it" is not only perfectly appropriate, but it’s an efficient way to refer to patients.

 The problem is that it’s impersonal, too.

The unpopular reality is that, as much as you and I recoil against the use of "it" in real life, our animals are not people. So it’s perfectly acceptable to refrain from using personal pronouns when referring to pets. Indeed, “it” is probably more appropriate when we’re talking about serious science.

Society's Perception of Pets

Back to my then sixth-grader. Sure, “it” is more appropriate, but would the science fair judges feel the same way? Or might they be put off by the designation of pets as non-persons? For that matter, how would a judge who’s charged with reading my medical records in a court of law feel about “it”?

It probably shouldn’t matter in either of these examples, but if you examine your own feelings on the subject, the reality is that you have an opinion on how your pets are perceived. You may even have a strong opinion, in which case you’ll likely bristle when a veterinarian mistakenly asks how “she’s” feeling today when it’s obviously a "he" you’re cradling in your arms.

It’s true that the offending veterinarian should have looked at the record first, but I have to confess that the fault lies (at least a little) with the pet owner. Who names a boy dog Ginger or Cookie and doesn’t expect people to get a little confused? It can be more than a little difficult sometimes to tell whether that little, red-sweatered critter you’re holding has a penis or not.

In the end, it’s all about an owner’s perception of a veterinarian’s personal relationship with a pet. And if you perceive that mistaken gender identity means that your vet cares less about your pet, then it's going to alter your relationship with your vet — which isn't good for any of the parties involved.

Ultimately, that’s why I worry so much about getting the gender thing right. After all, it’s clear that even pronouns have politics.

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