Have you ever seen an image of your pet the vets have taken and to you and anyone else looks like a set of black and grey wavy lives? Or you’ve seen a similar image on the telly or perhaps you yourself have had an ultrasound or an ECG and wonder how on earth those images on the screen can be interpreted into useful information.

Well, it is a learnt skill. Clever as it may seem, I think learning to interpret wavy black lines isn’t as clever as inventing the procedure and developing the skill in the first place, for others to learn from.

There are several areas in the veterinary field where we interpret black lines or varying shades of grey into a diagnosis, or a at least an evaluation of the patient in front of us.

Ultrasound uses sound waves, which reflect off varying surfaces within the body back to our handheld probe. The distance the sound waves travel and the number of sound waves which make their way back to the probe gives a set of wavy black lines on the view screen. With a lot of practice, patience and an open mind to begin with this is something we learn how to interpret and how amazingly useful this imaging modality is.

ECGs are another example. Electrocardiograms measure the electrical conductivity of the heart by way of electrodes being placed in specific locations on the body. Interpretation of the black lines this produces enables us to gage the heath of the heart, the effect of other abnormalities within the body on the heart, the size of the heart and sometimes specific chambers and enables us to choose a correct treatment plan to help the heart when it is failing.

When we collect a blood sample from our patient, a machine reading the colour penetration through the blood sample produces black spots on a sliding scale of figures. These black spots corelate with different biochemical markers the body produces. Some of these markers are easier than others to give a diagnosis to and we have to interpret them in light of the symptoms, additional urinalysis, imaging or serial blood samples.

X-rays are less lines and more shades of grey. X-rays show us bones and show us air very well but as for all other internal organs it is a matter of interpreting the size, shape, number, position, opacity and margins of what it is in front of us. Sound easy? It isn’t! Some conditions are more typical than others but again these skills can take years to learn and develop and gain speed at.

I often think science is a language in itself. Whilst mostly based on Latin terminology, learning a language, learning the art of wavy black lines and learning many other skills to being a vet, you can see, takes years. In truth, we are all still learning every single day. It is part of the attraction to the job. No two days are the same, no two images are the same and so it keeps us on our toes!