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Ultrasound for pets...what you should know

10/18/2009

Diagnostic ultrasound for pets has been an incredible advance in veterinary medicine. The ability to use ultrasound to look inside the abdomen or chest of an animal means that we can often quickly and non-invasively investigate a host of different health conditions. But pet parents need to know some basic facts about ultrasound to protect their pets and ensure they truly benefit from this technology.

Ultrasound scans, also called sonograms, use high-frequency sound waves to form images of tissues within the body. This technology is similar to the sonar used by bats and ships at sea. The sound waves are reflected by the patient's tissues and these reflected sound waves are recorded and displayed as a visual image. This occurs in "real time", meaning that the images are immediately displayed on a screen, and events such as blood flow, heart beats, and gastrointestinal movement can be observed as they occur.

Abdominal ultrasound can be used to examine the liver, gall bladder, spleen, kidneys, bladder, prostate, uterus, ovaries, adrenal glands, stomach, and intestines. This means it can help us to pinpoint the cause of common pet health issues such as vomiting, elevated kidney or liver values on blood tests, abnormal urination, unexplained weight loss, and much more. We can also use ultrasound to look at some of the structures in the thorax (chest). We can't look inside the lungs, since ultrasound is impeded by air, but we can examine the heart and look for abnormalities such as fluid, enlarged lymph nodes, and tumors.

If your pet ever needs an ultrasound exam, it's crucial to ensure that it's done properly. An inadequate ultrasound can be worse than none at all, since it often leads to misdiagnosis, which can be very dangerous for your pet.The use of ultrasound in veterinary medicine has become very common but there are no regulations in place to ensure that your pet’s ultrasound is performed competently.

Ultrasound isn't magic; it takes training, skill, and experience for the operator to accurately locate and examine the various abdominal organs and tissues and to correctly interpret any abnormalities. Without adequate mastery, it can be very easy to misinterpret an ultrasound image—to mistake gas bubbles in the colon for bladder stones, to miss subtly enlarged abdominal lymph nodes, to overlook a localized intestinal thickening. Some organs can be very tricky to locate if the operator lacks proficiency; it is common for inexperienced individuals to miss the adrenal glands or pancreas, for example.

If your pet requires an ultrasound exam, it falls to you to ensure that the person performing the procedure has adequate training to do so effectively, since there are no standards currently in place in the veterinary profession. Anyone can buy an ultrasound machine and start using it on people’s pets, and the results of mistakes can be tragic.

The best way to protect your pet is to have the ultrasound exam done by a board-certified veterinary radiologist if possible . Radiologists undergo a lengthy residency program, during which they receive rigorous training in the performance of various types of ultrasound procedures. To become board-certified, they must pass an arduous certification exam. If there is a veterinary radiologist in your area, this is the best person to perform your pet’s ultrasound procedure. To locate a radiologist, you can go to the veterinary radiology website and search for a board-certified radiologist in your city or state.

If you can’t find a veterinary radiologist in your area, a veterinary internal medicine specialist is another good choice. Veterinary internists also receive ultrasound training during their residency programs, although their ultrasound training is not as extensive as that of a radiologist. Internists are also skilled at the interpretation of abdominal ultrasound results, since the abdominal organs are one of the areas in which they specialize. To find an internist in your area, you can check the internal medicine website .

An ultrasound exam of the heart (echocardiogram), for example for a pet with a heart murmur, should be performed by a board-certified veterinary cardiologist; you can find one in your area here.

One method to avoid for your pet is the “remote ultrasound”. In this situation, instead of having a specialist perform a full ultrasound exam, someone takes pictures using an ultrasound machine, and sends them to a radiologist for interpretation. Unfortunately many mistakes can occur with this method. If an abnormality is not recognized by the untrained person performing the exam, or the images are of poor quality, the radiologist cannot make an accurate assessment of the animal. This technique should be a last resort, for geographic areas where there is no radiologist or internist available.Owners should be given the choice of seeing a radiologist or internist and made aware that this option exists.

If you have never seen an ultrasound exam performed on a pet, here is a video of a puppy receiving an ultrasound exam to discover an object lodged in the intestines. As you can see, the procedure is not scary or uncomfortable for the puppy.

If your pet needs an ultrasound, or any other procedure, be an educated veterinary consumer. Read about the specialists that are available for pets; ask questions; get informed. Don’t ever be afraid to speak up. You and your pet both deserve the best that veterinary medicine has to offer.

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